I was about 8 years old at the time, sitting in the back seat of the family Buick, staring out the window as we were stopped at a red light. Back in those days the newspaper boys would walk around car to car and ask if the occupants wanted the day’s news. As the young man walked up to our car all I saw in big bold print was “The War Is Over”. The war was of course ‘Operation Desert Storm’ where coalition forces from 34 nations led by the United States went against Iraq in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

I can’t remember feeling much at the time. Perhaps I was too young to realize what it all meant, and everything that had led up to that point. The only other memory I have of that time was seeing my father coming home as we sat in the living room watching Channel 33. He was dressed in camouflage army gear as a member of the reserve forces at the time. We all rushed to the door to hug him because we were used to not seeing him for days and weeks on end.

My father was a finance major in university, and had since worked for a major oil company in Abu Dhabi in their accounting and financial planning department. He would get home early everyday – early enough that we would have just come home from school and would hear his car turning into the driveway. Lunch was a family affair every single day. During the war though, there was an empty seat at the table. My father’s seat was beside his comrades who had answered the call to protect the country, region, and people so dear to them.

Fast forward almost a quarter of a century and we are in a similar place, under very different circumstances. The UAE is a very different place than it was. Families from almost every country in the world call this country home now. This economic progress and diversification is led by mandates to diversify away our hydrocarbon base and develop industries that foster innovation and creativity. Political progress has been led by increasing numbers of women in our government and workforce, growing youth involvement through technology, and increased connectivity between leadership, citizens, and residents through an ever evolving social landscape.

This is our story. But the story of region bears little resemblance to ours. When we build on progress, others worry about power; when we talk about unity, others focus on dividing; when we promote peace, others wage war; while we look to the future, others are focused on the past. Even though we are blessed to be living within secure borders, it’s important that our country and its people are prepared for what lies beyond those borders.

That preparation came in the form of a new national defense and reserve force. As of 2014, all Emirati men between 18 and 30 who have finished secondary school will have to serve nine months in military service. Those who haven’t finished high school will serve two years. To date military service remains optional for Emirati women. Yet the feedback and enrollment rate of young Emirati women in military service has been incredibly positive, with many noting that there was a very welcome surplus of young women and men excited to start this journey.

So how have things changed since our young women and men left the comfort of their jobs, homes, and families to answer our Nation’s call of military duty? I have family and friends enrolled in the service, so it’s easy to get an understanding of the overall experience. But for me the greater changes have been in the things that even they don’t notice, because these have become part of a newfound appreciation for life and the blessings they once took for granted.

During any given weekend, it’s easy to spot young Emirati men proudly sporting their new haircuts, or should I say lack of hair. You can also notice it from the sides of their UAE headgear (the ghutra and 3agal). When I was walking with a couple of friends in military service, they were quick to acknowledge others they didn’t even know carrying the same haircut and dark tan from hours of outdoor training and exercises.

“Do you know them?” I asked a friend who had greeted and smiled at three other young men enjoying a meal at the same restaurant as us. “No, but I can tell they are in military service from how they look, and how slowly they are eating their food.” It was beautiful to see that sense of unity. He had no idea who they were, what tribe, family, or Emirate they came from.

All he knew was that they had a deeper connection, and that was one of trust and respect because a single cause united them – the love of their country. They had learned together, struggled together, suffered long hot days of exercise and even longer sleepless nights of drills together, but more importantly they had grown stronger together. These are moments that they will remember for the rest of their lives, and these will be the building blocks for a new meaning of what being a united country stands for.

A second very important element of society that I think has shifted is a newfound appreciation for many of the things we take for granted. Probably the most touching story I have heard was from a father whose son had returned home for the first weekend after the initial lockdown period. The father told me that upon returning his son hugged him and wouldn’t let go. The son then started crying and apologizing for all the times he had made things hard on the family, and for all the times he didn’t show appreciation for his father and mother’s hard work. He was promising that he would work hard to give back to his family and his community.

The UAE Government spares no expense towards ensuring that citizens have access to the necessary support and services to lives of dignity and comfort. To many Emirati elders who lived before such things existed, there is an inherent sense of gratitude that many of the youth lack because they know no differently. They didn’t see the UAE before the wealth. Many feel that it is a birthright to have access to such wealth. They hold materialistic dreams of high paying jobs, fancy offices, expensive cars, and larger than life houses. The problem is that their sense of hard work comes second to these dreams, rather than prior to them, due to the support they are accustomed to.

What military service has done is rid everyone enlisted of pretty much every comfort, and brought them all back down to earth. It has them working harder than they have ever had to work, it has them doing jobs they never thought they would have to do, and it has them living without things they thought they would always have. It has them focused entirely on their mission of growth and unity, with everything else coming in a distant second.

Mandatory military service came into our lives very quickly, and enlisted young Nationals even quicker. I can’t remember a law coming into implementation at such a fast pace, with many saying it was necessary given the circumstances in the region. Although I agree with that statement, it is so easy to see the internal benefits military service has had on our youth and communities. It has brought growth, development, unity, and pride in new and meaningful ways. It has built young women and men who are going to take those experiences into their companies and communities across the UAE. It has strengthened the bonds between country and people alike and, to quote the wise words of Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, it has shown that now more than ever,“Our House Is United”.

*This article was originally posted in Shawati Magazine