The military’s oath of enlistment is fairly succinct and very straightforward.

“I (name) do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same …” That’s a condensed version, sure, but those are some of the key words from the vow.

Truthfully, as an 18-year-old at the time I raised my hand and swore the words, my young, ignorant self had no real clue as to what I was promising.

Being doubly honest here, my decision to enlist at the time had very little to do with patriotism or a yearning to serve my country. I needed a kick-start on my life. I needed a foundation. I needed the personal boost I felt my enlistment would give me. Back then, it was more about me than it was anything else. Selfish, I know. But true.

As for protecting and defending the Constitution, I possessed very little knowledge in what those words meant. I’d be standing guard duty over a piece of parchment, for all I knew. My high school teachers tried mightily to get us to take interest, but most of it went through my long hair covering one ear and right out the other. I seriously doubt I would have been able to differentiate between the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. To me, both were words written by old, dead dudes.

Over the next few years, about all I figured out was that I wouldn’t physically be standing guard over the big piece of paper. I’m embarrassed to confess I didn’t vote in a single election in the early ’80s. I was too busy doing Marine stuff, I told myself, and it was too much trouble tracking down a ballot. The truth was I just didn’t care enough to pay attention.

Not until I made the decision to become a career Marine did it finally hit me just what I’d sworn. I credit some great leaders in various leadership academies I attended for pointing out what I should already have known. Namely, that the Constitution is the rock on which this nation was built. Considering the enormous amount of diversity here in the U.S., the Constitution is the one entity designed to bind us all together. It’s what makes us “united” states instead of 50 minor countries. It gives rights and power to the people, and not just to elected leaders. It helps us stave off dictatorships. There aren’t many documents like it in the world.

I also realized the words “against all enemies, foreign and domestic” meant all our military training and preparation wasn’t just for defending potential enemies overseas. It was a disappointing enlightenment indeed to understand there are those who would love to see our nation shredded from the inside.

Finally absorbing this information changed me. My service no longer was about my personal goals. For the first time, I felt I was serving something bigger and much more important. I began studying governments in other countries, especially those under authoritarian rule. The citizens there exist to serve the government instead of the other way around. I met people who had escaped such tyranny in foreign lands, and their stories moved me. The more I learned, the more fortunate I felt to live in this incredible nation — despite its flaws.

As I grew older, I made it a point to increase my understanding. I paid closer attention to all elections, whether national or local. I learned how all of it affected each of us. I delved deeper into the original Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I read every amendment — and wondered stupidly why it took so long for things such as freedom of speech, the abolishment of slavery, the right to vote (for everyone) and civil rights to take hold. I saw nothing in the writings favoring one political party over another. The words mean something to everyone living here.

I understood then that like everything else in our country, the Constitution was always going to be in need of change — and protection. Our country’s founders were remarkable in their way of thinking at the time, but they — nor anyone else — could possess the foresight necessary to envision just how our nation would grow. As it grows, so do its needs — and its challenges, both from without and within.

Now, here I am all these years later, and all the words I’ve read in our country’s most important documents still mean something to me. I hold to “all men are created equal.” Yeah, baby. Every person. Says so right there.

I’ll place extra emphasis on the “for liberty and justice for all” part of the pledge. “All,” as in every single American citizen.

We honored our veterans this week on Veterans Day. Many of those men and women swore the same oath I swore, and those I know personally still adhere to the words, no matter how long we’ve been away from active duty.

My hope is somehow, someday, we’ll all learn to see more than words. What our veterans fought and sacrificed to protect had everything to do with all of us, and not just a select few. Those vets showed us there’s no room for selfishness in service of our nation. One doesn’t have to wear a uniform to serve. The loyalty wagon holds plenty of room.

“Thank you for your service.”

Yes, I admit I love hearing those words directed at any veteran.

But another way to express thanks would be for all of us to take our turns standing guard duty over everything we want our nation to be.

Gary Stallard is a regular contributor to the Opinion page of The Lufkin Daily News. His email address is garylstallard@yahoo.com.