Burke, Virginia-born Wade Spann joined the U.S. Marine Corps right out of high school because he wanted to gain a measure of self-discipline before going to college. In August of 2001, he began basic training at the Marine Corps Recruitment Depot in Parris Island, South Carolina. Boot camp was challenging, but Spann got through it by reminding himself that it was just one step on a much longer journey. After graduating, Spann was assigned to the School of Infantry at Camp Geiger, North Carolina, where he trained to become an Infantry Assaultman.

In 2002, the lifelong Washington Redskins fan received his first deployment to Kuwait; as part of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines he would soon be taking part in the invasion of Iraq. As a young man, Spann was excited to finally put all of his training to good use. He quickly received a dose of reality as his unit, which was sent to take control of the Rumaila oil field, incurred the first U.S. military casualty of the war. Wade also quickly learned the value of communication. Whether performing humanitarian aid missions or kicking in doors, it was of vital importance that he stay in contact with his fellow serviceman at all times.

After spending four months in Iraq, Spann had matured by seeing the effects of war up close and personal, but found the experience invigorating overall. After receiving additional training in Okinawa, Japan, his unit was dispatched to Fallujah. Although routing out the insurgents in the area was perilous, Spann worked with incredibly skilled commanders who put the lives of their subordinates above all else. Wade also learned the leadership skills that would serve him throughout his career in the military and in the civilian world.

One day in 2004, Spann’s unit was tasked with finding an insurgent who had been regularly attacking his company. While searching a town called Al-Karmah, the unarmored Humvee Spann was riding in was hit by an IED. Although there were no fatalities, Wade took some shrapnel to the back of the head. Once his convalescence was complete, he received his third deployment to the lawless city of Ramadi. After enduring months of ambushes and unit casualties, Spann decided to transition back to civilian life to pursue his education.

Even though the injuries he sustained in Iraq made the transition to college life difficult, he persevered. During his time at George Washington University, Spann got involved with the Student Veterans of America to help give his fellow student vets a platform on campus. Now working as an account manager for Oracle Systems, Wade still advocates for the veterans who have had a hard time adjusting to life outside of the military. For Spann, Veterans Day holds special meaning because he knows firsthand the sacrifices our armed service members make to defend the country. “We would not be the country we are today if we did not have people willing to do the right thing and serve. It really comes down to the guys before me. I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t set that legacy up and held me to a higher standard.”

Mario McKellop is a freelance writer who has covered the pop culture beat since 2010.