Jake Cusack is a 32-year-old former Marine Corps platoon commander and intelligence officer who served from 2004 to 2008. Jake began his military service after graduating from the University of Notre Dame, and his first deployment began on Christmas Day in 2005 in the Fallujah and Ramadi areas of Iraq. His military decorations include the Bronze Star, Navy Commendation Medal and Combat Action Ribbon.
"Memorial Day, to me, is a celebration of lives that were well-lived and people who gave that last full measure of devotion in service of a cause greater than themselves," he says of the national holiday.
Jake is representative of our generation's veterans, a young man who gave a large part of his twenties serving his country while it was at war in the Middle East. Unlike previous generations, the men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were not conscripted, but chose to sign up. They served in wars that were waged mostly outside of traditional battlefields and fought amongst civilians and neighborhoods, against enemies often without uniforms or unseen entirely. These wars were also the first conflicts in the history of modern warfare where soldiers were sent back to the combat zone again and again. Furthermore, after more than a decade of tough and ugly days in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is difficult today for anyone to declare that these wars were successful in bringing peace and democracy to those countries. A recent poll by the Washington Post found that most Iraq veterans do not think the war was worth fighting, but 90 percent of them would do it all again, even knowing what they know now.
When I asked Jake why he joined the military during a time of war, he said the idea of national service, "of taking some time early in your life to work in service of a goal that's greater than yourself," was very important to him. This notion of service also applies to his transition to working in investment and economic development in these same countries. After leaving the Marines, Jake completed a joint Masters in Public Policy and Masters in Business Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School. He then founded CrossBoundary, which provides investment and economic development advisory services in frontier markets and conflict zones. After spending several years of his youth in Iraq, and losing many friends in combat there, Jake says he felt compelled to return to Iraq and Afghanistan. He hopes that economic development can ultimately be more effective in bringing peace, stability and prosperity to these countries.
Jake now sits on the board of the Harvard Leadership Institute and has spoken at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Center for Public Leadership and the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations and Appropriations Committees. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Fortune and Inc. In December, the Center for Strategic and International Studies published a report he co-authored titled "Investment Facilitation in Transitional and Fragile States."
Memorial Day is a holiday of remembrance for Americans. They remember those who have died in wars, many of whom were young people of our generation who, like Jake, believed passionately in the idea of service. I believe it is the duty of all young people to think about what our generation's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have meant for those countries and ours. Today, some 32,000 American troops are still in Afghanistan, which has been America's longest war. Nearly 7,000 American men and women have died while deployed in these countries since September 11, 2001, and the U.S. has spent trillions of dollars fighting these wars. The U.S. failed to reach a security agreement with Iraq to keep a small military force there after U.S. troops withdrew in 2011 and Iraq has subsequently been ravaged by resurgent waves of violence. In Afghanistan, the U.S. is still trying to negotiate keeping a small military force there beyond 2014.
When we fail to continue to pay attention to Iraq and Afghanistan, we fail to honor the sacrifices made by the soldiers of our generation.