On this Veteran’s Day 2014, some of you who are reading this are fortunate enough to know (or have known) a veteran of military service. Usually, this is someone in the family. In other cases, you may know a friend or neighbor who has served his or her country. Either way, on this Veteran’s Day when we honor those who served or made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, the best thing we can possibly do is to get to know one of these remarkable individuals.
Of all the many wonderful aspects of knowing my father (sadly, he passed away last year), one of the most rich and continually rewarding elements was his stories of his years in the Army. Though that was only a brief time in his life (1942-1946), it shaped the way he viewed the world, how he lived his life, and the way he raised his children.
To say that he had stories is an understatement – his tales could make Tolstoy’s War and Peace seem like a short story; however, Dad was always very honest in telling all his tales. The amazing thing was not just the details of battles, of how he had been wounded (twice), or even the glory of victory; no, the best parts of his stories were the humanity, the decency, the sadness of losing friends, and the realization that he was one of the lucky ones because he got to come home and live his life.
In my family members have served in the Spanish-American War (great grandfather), World War I (grandfather), World War II (Dad and my uncles), Korea (more uncles), Vietnam (cousins), and Iraq (more cousins). I have also had friends who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a complex and rich tapestry of people with many stories to tell. Now we can magnify their stories by the millions of people who have served over the years, and they are a rich resource of historical details and personal tales.
One thing I have noted in talking to vets over the years (in my own family and friends and acquaintances) is that none of them have ever bragged about anything. There was no “guts and glory bluster” from any of them; rather, there was a sincere belief in their mission and dedication to the service of their country. They would speak of the horrors of war (and there were many), but there was also the love of their comrades, the “good” times they managed to have between battles and even while dodging bullets, and their memories are often tinged with sadness and loss, but also there is a sense of fulfillment and honor in doing the job that they were sent to do.
On this Veteran’s Day, if you are lucky enough to know a veteran, sit down and listen to his or her stories. If you take even a few minutes, you’ll be happy that you did because you will hear something astounding that will stay with you for the rest of your life. If you don’t personally know someone who has served, make it a point to go to your local parade. See if you can get to talk to one or more of them, shake their hands, and say the simple words, “Thank you.” I know that can be difficult or even awkward for some people, but believe me it makes the veteran happy to know that he or she was appreciated.
One time when I went out to eat with my father, he happened to be wearing his Army jacket. At this point he was old and sitting in a wheelchair. A complete stranger came up to him, shook his hand, and said “Thank you.” He then proceeded to go to the owner of the place and pay for the entire meal. My father, never the one to get emotional, started to get teary-eyed. He couldn’t believe that this man would appreciate what he had done even after so many years. This was not the only time this happened when my father wore that jacket, and in other cases he would turn down the offer because the offer itself meant more than anything.
Veteran’s Day should have no political implications – even if our elected officials use the parade and the moment to exploit their own agendas. This is not about being pro-war or promoting peace or being Democrat or Republican. This is simply a time to honor anyone who served – those who came home and those who never did.
Before he left France, my father visited the cemetery and honored the memory of a friend lost in battle. He was a young man just like my Dad who went in a ship across the vast ocean, got off the train in England, and stormed the beach in Normandy, but unlike Dad he never made it out of the water. Dad and guys like him knew too many of those lost, and there is no other way to honor them other than to respect their memories now.
Even if it is not Veteran’s Day, whenever I see anyone in a military uniform, whether in the bank, the mall, or a grocery store, I try to stop and shake their hands and say “Thank you.” This can either be the start of a conversation or it can just be a pleasant way to show appreciation. The best thing you can do though is to stop, ask about their service, and listen for a few moments. “Thank you” may not seem like enough, but it’s the least any civilian can do for the men and women who have made it possible for us to live life as we do here in this country.
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