Van Beek: Life’s calling to serve others
As graduation nears, career decisions are foremost on people’s minds. I am often asked why I chose a life in law enforcement. As I think about it, there never seemed to be a time when I hadn’t considered it.
By that I mean it was a natural progression from my time in the military. Beyond that, it was as if anytime I veered in a different direction, life always brought me back to serving and protecting people. Some would say it was a “calling.”
I’m told the difference between a career and a calling is that a calling appears to be something with which you’re born. You discover that your talents and interests are aligned, and, regardless of position, you end up doing the same thing. Whether as a peacekeeper on the playground, breaking up fights in a college bar, protecting civilians in the military, or leading an amazing team as Eagle County sheriff, the skills, passion, and dedication are the same.
I grew up in a large family with immigrant parents. They arrived with the American dream in their hearts and raised us with a tremendous sense of patriotism. I was No. 6 six of seven children, and, as one of the youngest, protecting one’s rights was necessary for survival.
By fourth grade, I had decided that the ultimate freedom was being able to fly. From that moment on, I was fixated on becoming a pilot. I became obsessed with entering the U.S. Air Force Academy.
All was going along great until 10th grade, when I was informed that I was too tall to fit in a cockpit at my height of 6 feet, 6 inches. I was brokenhearted, yet I knew it to be true. I had also wanted a sports car, but if I managed to squeeze in, getting out was a feat of magic.
However, by that time, I was so involved with JROTC, I became determined to work in some area of aviation. The idea of military service had already become part of me.
I was deeply moved by the challenges faced by those returning from Vietnam and inspired by their sacrifice. It was then that I decided if I couldn’t fly jets — since I wasn’t getting any shorter — that I would enlist in the Army and work with helicopters. I became fascinated with the machines of flight. How they worked and being able to make that happen became my new passion.
Experiencing how military machines were integral to the protection of our nation, I loved my time in the service. In my deployments, I came face to face with all the reasons why it takes a certain determination and courage to protect the freedoms that we take for granted, and it is particularly evident in foreign lands.
I often felt bad for those in other countries who struggled so hard just to survive and realized that many of those daily struggles exist here at home. It was then that I decided to transition my service from military to civilian by entering law enforcement. I wanted to protect their American Dream.
Little did I realize that the closeness one develops with the community in law enforcement would have such an intimate effect on entire families. You get to experience the long-term results of decisions in a way that I was never able to do in the military.
My passion shifted from military machines to the smiles on children’s faces and the gratitude of families helped during times of crisis. The thought that something I did could make a huge difference in someone’s life is up close and personal. A few words to a teenager who is contemplating risky choices, or comforting a young child who simply does not understand the bigger picture of an upsetting situation or a senior who is feeling highly vulnerable in a circumstance that others might simply take in stride … it’s all part of our greater commitment to serve.
One instance that is near to my heart was in response to a domestic situation. The actions I took so impressed the child in that home that it inspired her to enter law enforcement as a career, and she thanks me to this day.
Of course, the field of law enforcement has its dangerous side, and when I leave my home each day, there is a strong possibility that I may not live to return. While we live in a relatively safe environment, we can at any moment encounter an unexpected act of aggression, which could quickly escalate to a life-threatening situation. Yet I wouldn’t change my career for anything and highly recommend it to any young person feeling their “calling.”
Aside from medals and commendations, the true test of achievement comes from the number of lives we influence. As graduation nears, consider law enforcement as an option. Your community will be grateful.
James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at email@example.com.