“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
— Margaret Mead
Last Saturday morning, on the grass alongside Route 25 in Southold outside the American Legion Hall, we saw this sentiment brought to life: a group of 15 men and women, each carrying a backpack weighing 22 pounds, stepping off to walk 22 miles to Veterans Memorial Park in Calverton.
The effort was called “Walk4Valor” and was intended to call attention to the tragic statistic that an average of 22 veterans commit suicide every day in America. On average, that is — meaning on some days it could be twice that number.
We know that the percentage of Americans who volunteer for military service is very low — something like 1% of eligible U.S. adults. Since the 9/11 terror attacks, those who have enlisted have fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many thousands have served multiple tours.
The two-decade war in Afghanistan ended late last month with a thoroughly botched pullout of American forces and a small percentage of their Afghan allies. The withdrawal served to reinforce one point of view: that America’s long engagement there — an effort to turn that country into a modern democratic state that was funded with trillions of American dollars — was a mistake.
What we saw Saturday morning, not long after the sun rose, was a small group — which included some who had served in Afghanistan — coming together for a cause far larger than themselves.
As they waited for the walk to begin, they talked among themselves, checked out their backpacks, grabbed an extra water and an energy bar and listened as Charles Sanders, commander of American Legion Post 803 and a participant in the walk, thanked everyone who came to make an effort to highlight this cause.
American social media — Facebook, Twitter and countless other sites — has changed society and the terms of how people live their lives. Social media has transformed people who have otherwise accomplished very little on their own into people who are famous for being famous. So to see this small group step onto the curb and begin to head west was to realize that those who see beyond the confines of their own lives are worthy of our respect.
To serve others, to help others, to live a purposeful life -— those goals define our American heroes. They are the “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” who can bring about fundamental good, who can highlight critical issues that need to be addressed.
The selfie-loving people on social media live in a world far different from the one these 15 inhabit. If democratic America is going to advance, which in today’s political climate is an open question, we need to celebrate those who work to solve problems and help others and reject the narcissism now rampant in our society.
To the 15 who walked Saturday, knowing it would be seven or eight hours before they reached their destination, we thank you.
This is how participant Dani Perri, a Fordham University student from Oakdale, put it: “If this walk helps only one person — that is the least I can do.”