Editor's Note: Former Lt. Matt Spartz was born and raised in Lombard. A journalism graduate from University of Illinois, he wrote a column for the Daily Herald from Afghanistan, where he served in 2010-11. Spartz is now in the Army Reserves and works as a buyer in the gas turbine division of Rolls Royce in Indianapolis.
One of my first experiences as a cadet at the University of Illinois was helping unfurl a gigantic American flag before the Veterans Day football game. It was a glassy cool day in 2006, and at halftime the announcer asked all veterans to stand up and be recognized.
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As a few people in each section stood, my buddy elbowed me to stand with my fellow cadets.
"But I'm not a veteran?" I said, or questioned myself. He said everyone wanted to recognize us as future veterans. Up until then the only experience I had with the Army was practicing battle drills with rubber weapons on the quad.
I stood, thinking it would be more awkward to stay sitting in my dark green camouflage uniform and shined black boots.
"One day, I'll earn the right to stand," I remember thinking as I avoided any direct eye contact.
I fought in Afghanistan. I may have a few good bar stories about snapping bullets and dropping bombs. I have a closet stocked with old uniforms and a shelf sporting some shiny coins from historic Army units.
When I was growing up, veterans were always grandpas. Stories were always told about a time long ago in a land far, far away. I always thought earning your "vet card" was like getting social security -- you pay in all your life but can't use it until you're 65 or something.
Coincidentally, the word "veteran" comes from the Latin "veteranus," an adjective actually meaning old. Afghanistan literally turned a few of my hairs gray, but I'm hard-pressed to think of myself as old. My knees feel like they're 60, but I'm not even half that (26).
The government defines veterans as "men and women who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces." We veterans 18-30 years old are a unique minority in our society. We are classified as "Gulf War-era II" veterans or "Young Veterans."
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2010 that of the 21.6 million veterans in the U.S., 2.4 million are "GWII" veterans.
We GWII males, ages 18-24, have another distinguishing characteristic -- an unemployment rate of 29.1 percent, compared to our non-veteran counterparts at 17.6 percent.
One of my soldiers, not even 21, had nothing more than a GED. The Army trusted him to provide ground targeting for millions of dollars in bombs, while being shot at. I trusted him more than a few times with my life.
The Army took this journalism major hiding from math books behind a newspaper desk and taught me, well, rocket science.
A few weeks after I returned from Afghanistan in 2011 I was at a baseball game with my girlfriend, Brittany. The announcer asked for any service members to stand and be recognized. After seeing I was still sitting, Brittany elbowed me and told me to stand.
Somehow, it still felt uncomfortable.