Several years ago I was in Bend, Oregon over the Memorial Day weekend when, while I was eating breakfast in a restaurant, a woman approached me and thanked me for my service - I was wearing The Cap, above. I smiled in appreciation while she continued by saying, “Welcome home.” I blurted out that I had come home 45 years ago. The remark seemed to confuse her - did she know the time period of the Vietnam War? - and made me regret saying it. I do not often wear that hat, but when I do now it is expressly to engage people. My assumption is that most people who approach veterans to express appreciation for their service do so with good intentions, however, this encounter in Bend begs for a different outcome, one that will enrich both the veteran and the citizen.
Much of our “thanking the troops” comes in the way of concerts, downtown parades and ceremonies at the local city hall or cemetery. These days, sports teams at all levels have boarded the “thank the troops” bandwagon and fill pre-game and half-time shows with military jet flyovers, unfurling huge flags, playing martial music or honoring particular veterans while the fans roar and the cheerleaders wiggle their butts and scream, “Yay, troops!” The announcer, to much applause, may then speak of our “heroes.” But might I suggest that the blanket referral to veterans as “heroes” should stop. I hear it a lot nowadays and it always makes me uncomfortable, not because there aren't veterans who are combat heroes, but because the term is used so broadly it loses meaning and trivializes the notion. If you were to go into any VFW hall or other gathering of veterans and ask all the heroes to stand up, you would most likely get blank stares. Going to a war zone or being shot at is not heroic in and of itself, as most soldiers see that as merely doing their duty. We do them more honor if we engage them in conversation about their service than if we place them on a pedestal. Pedestals create distance. On the other hand, I must point out that the struggles many of these veterans have after returning home truly are heroic in nature, but I wonder how many people who have no connection to military service understand that particular version of heroism. So, after the hoopla, everyone goes home and the “heroes” - if they have a home - are forgotten until the next holiday or game.
Given the gulf that exists now between the soldier and the citizenry, it makes sense to have the public engage our veterans on a personal level such as the opportunity I had, and missed, as described above. Might I suggest that if you are inclined to greet and thank a veteran from any war - not “conflict,” as conflict is what you might have with a teenage son or daughter over taking the car - you could express at the outset some interest in where he or she served or the job the individual had. This may lead to further conversation about the veteran's actual experience and will demonstrate that yours is not just a passing or perfunctory interest. It is important to remember also that some veterans may not be proud of their service and may be ashamed of either the war they fought in or the actions they took while participating.
Personally, here is a short list of things I would like to hear from individual citizens as they express their appreciation. If you think the service of any veteran was worthwhile and actually helped to protect the freedoms we all enjoy, tell us…
- That you participate as a citizen in government at some level
- That you write to your representatives on issues of importance to you
- That you discuss politics and government with your family at the dinner table
- That you expose your children to the process of government at city or county council meetings
- That you take your family to visit the state capital or our nation's capital to learn it workings
- That you insure that civics and government is taught in our schools
- That you take your children to historic sites and explain their significance
- That you value the teaching of history and critical thinking skills
- That you demand our nation care for the men and women it has sent to war
- That you vote and, moreover, that you vote for men and women of peace
Below is a short list of some related articles, with links, that may inform all of us today, Veterans Day, about veterans, war, sacrifice, and patriotism. By reading, discussing, disagreeing with and passing them to friends and family you can honor our veterans with your participation and thoughtfulness.