Four years ago at a family gathering on Thanksgiving Day in Arizona I sat next to a young man in his senior year in high school and in the midst of a decision.

I’d known him only briefly. For most of the people at the table I was what we once called an in-law. Today, in the more charitable description of an outsider, I’m a member of the extended family. David was an impressive kid, physically conditioned, well-mannered and deferring to the older folks in the cross-conversation the holiday dinner. Earlier his father had mentioned his son’s interest in the military as one possibility.

“I’m thinking of college,” the young man said. “But I’m also thinking of enlisting in the Marines.”

This was in 2008. American forces in Iraq were still taking casualties. In Afghanistan it was worse and was now formally being described as a quagmire. It was begun as a combined effort with allies to rout Osama Bin Laden’s al Quaida and its terrorist threat to the United States and the free world. In time the Americans and allies experienced some of the historic fate of invading armies in Aghanistan—the bogdown in its mountains and the wiles of its Taliban tribes.

David knew about all of that. My own choices had been narrower. I had served in the Army for two years, drafted at the time of the Korean War a few months after graduating from college. I hadn’t thought about volunteering for the service then. But I had served my two years and later remembered doing so with a gratitude I still feel: Wearing the uniform of one’s country.

It mattered. It still does.

But here was a young man with strong academic achievement behind him and a probable choice of scholarships ahead of him, yet thinking seriously about enlisting at a time when he was almost certain to be thrust into shooting war, either in Iraq and more probably in Afghanistan.

I didn’t ask him why. He did say that he admired the principles of the Marine Corps, the discipline it demanded.

He didn’t say, “The country needs people willing to serve.” He didn’t say, “I’m young. There’s a war. Somebody has to fight it. Am I strong enough to want to do that?”

And somewhere he might have felt it: “If not me, who?”

So this became the journey of a young man who didn’t have to fight. But this was a world he lived in; the citizen-soldiers around him were going back again and again in the National Guard. He felt strong, something tugging at him, and telling him he should be part of it.

Was there also something about the excitement of potential combat? A testing?

I don’t know. I would be surprised if there weren’t. He did enlist. He finished at the top of his class in practically all of his training and in the nails-tough Marine exercises and tests. He had the look of a leader. He advanced to sergeant in time and was assigned to Afghanistan.

I lost connection with him for several years, knew nothing of his action there until I talked to his father by phone a few days ago.

“Tell me about David,” I said.

“He was in the middle of it,” his father said, “in Helmand Province and places like that.” They had battles with the Taliban. Drones flying overhead. Improvised explosives, invisible but there. Sometimes it was a throw of the dice. Strategies and deadly tricks. “Our guys pretended they were pulling out,” his father said, “The Taliban fighters took the bait…and our guys hit them hard when they came.”

And the next day? More of the same.

I hesitated to ask. “And David?”

“He has served his four years and is back in the country. He’s glad he did it and proud to be among the men he served with. He felt he had something to give. And now he’s planning to enroll in pre-law in Pennsylvania.”

“His girlfriend has been studying there and it’s a perfect situation.” His father said he thought David would make it in law.

Would you have any doubts?

About Jim Klobuchar:

In 45 years of daily journalism, Jim Klobuchar’s coverage ranged from presidential campaigns to a trash collector’s ball. He has written from the floor of a tent in the middle of Alaska, from helicopters, from the Alps and from the edge of a sand trap. He was invited to lunch by royalty and to a fist fight by the late Minnesota Viking football coach, Norm Van Brocklin. He wrote a popular column for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for 30 years and has authored 23 books. Retiring as a columnist in 1996, he contributes to Ecumen’s “Changing Aging” blog, and the Christian Science Monitor. He also leads trips around the world and an annual bike trip across Northern Minnesota. He’s climbed the Matterhorn in the Alps 8 times and has ridden his bike around Lake Superior. He’s also the proud father of two daughters, including Minnesota’s senior U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar.