It’s that time of year again: those of us who have served pull out our DD-214’s, military ID cards, shirts with unit insignia, or of course the ubiquitous gold lettered [INSERT CONFLICT HERE] ballcap, and head towards the nearest Applebee’s, Outback, and Golden Corral for some free chow. Of course I’m talking about that most important Federal Holiday, Veteran’s Day.
Obviously, that’s not just what the day is for. Officially recognized as a Federal Holiday by Congress in May 1938 as Armistice Day to set aside a day to honor World War One veterans (the date itself serving as a reminder of the 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour end of The Great War), the name was changed to Veteran’s Day in 1954 to encompass veterans of all US wars. (1)
Traditionally, Veterans Day has been commemorated with parades and services. As I watch the morning news, it’s good to see that this institution is still alive and well, with coverage of events and notifications of where they are held. Slightly less heartening is the annual Veteran’s Day furniture sales – because honoring service somehow translates to great deals on a pillow top mattress.
The problem there is, on the surface, it looks like a disconnect between the intent of day and what we do as Americans with it, and to some it’s indicative of larger issues of the disconnect between America’s veterans and American society at large. There is probably some truth to that, and it’s a big problem for today’s social media savvy vet. For the most part, this angst materializes itself in the form of the snarky Facebook meme; chiding the non vet for their lack of understanding of a basic holiday and it’s meaning. I have certainly been guilty of this before – I get particularly irritated at people not understanding the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day (I think this comes from being a History major in college).
My take on the phenomenon is this: while the attitude is certainly justifiable, it also requires some perspective. As veterans, we want people to understand the sacrifice. Not really for ourselves, but for those we were served with whom we call brother (and sister). We want them to understand the situation as it really is on the ground, not how it is reported by a weekend political pundit or some stooge running for office. The problem is they can’t. Someone who has never experienced war, been both balls hot and cold as hell in the same day while wearing a metric shit ton of gear in a uniform with salt stains on it that hasn’t been washed in the better part of a month while surrounded by people that at best, would rather you not be there and at worst hate you with every fiber of their being for a cause that 50% of the population you protect doesn’t agree with is never going to understand. Its beyond their perspective.
Thing is, that’s not the point. The point is that a whole lot of Americans still give a shit. Yes, “thank you for your service” is a bit of a platitude. At least it’s there. At least that person wherever they may be cared enough to acknowledge “thank you for doing something I don’t really understand, but I do know it’s something I should be grateful for”. Many of us in the recent conflicts flew through Bangor, Maine and were treated with real gratitude from the Greeters there. For me, it was an experience I will never forget. When I came home from Iraq (both times) I had family meeting me with pride and with “Hero” inscribed on welcome banners (which I sure as hell know I didn’t deserve but certainly appreciated while simultaneously being very embarrassed about).
In contrast, when my father returned from the Vietnam Conflict, he had the pleasure of being spit on, literally spit on, by war protestors. His generation got a lot of grief if they wore their uniform with pride, and while a part of me wishes there is a special place in Hell for such people that would do that to a 20 year old recently returned from one of America’s wars, I truly hope those people have realized the error in their ways, because having to endure all that veterans of foreign wars have had to endure and to come back to that is something this country can never do again.
So, this Veterans Day, I plan on being grateful for what we have. We live in a relative Gilded Age of veteran awareness. As veterans, we should be conscious of that. We should be conscious of how far Veteran Affairs has come in 40 odd years. Let’s not get all Butt Hurt about “thank you for your service”, but be thankful for it. Let’s mark the occasion by walking over to the table of that other guy with the gold lettered hat chewing down on his free blooming onion and exchange some stories, and not by adding to the vitriol that is ever present on the interwebs. There is plenty of hate out there already, no need for us which has seen the elephant need to join in on.
Finally to the veterans of the Vietnam War, I say with a lot of pride and humility:
(1) http://www.va.gov Office of Public Affairs, “History of Veteran’s Day”