I am a Marine. I have served for about 14 years now and I deployed to Afghanistan and did a couple of other deployments around the world. I saw combat, did some tough things, and saw some bad stuff, but one thing I learned is that there is always someone who had it harder. My story doesn’t represent everyone’s service and I can’t tell you what the meaning of Veterans Day might be to women, people of color, or LGBT folks. That being said, my personal feeling is that anyone who raised their right hand and took the oath is my brother or sister. We might make fun and we might talk smack but, in the end, if you have worn a uniform in good faith and done your part, you are to be celebrated and thanked.
Memorial Day vs Veterans Day
Veterans Day differs from Memorial Day which is a more somber day of remembrance for the fallen. It’s a day of mourning and honoring those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the name of duty. There are some vets who can get prickly if you wish them a “Happy Memorial Day” and it’s not unreasonable. Most folks mean well when they say it but they’re just, sadly, a little misinformed about the meaning of the occasion and don’t know any better. Still, it is a bit like telling someone “Happy Day Your Friends Died.”
Veterans Day, on the other hand, can be a happy day. It’s a day, not to mourn those whom we have lost, but to celebrate those who chose to serve something larger than themselves.
What Does Veterans Day Mean?
But what does it mean to someone who served? I certainly can’t speak for everyone but I can tell you what it means to me.
A sad reality these days is that veterans are a small percentage of Americans and many don’t know how to relate to them. Most people only see media representations of the military and trying to relate to the idea of going to war or even boot camp is hard if you’ve never done it. We as veterans aren’t necessarily tougher, smarter, stronger, or faster (though many are) just by virtue of having served.
We are all just Americans.
The only real difference is that we made the decision to serve, which I argue is the one of the hardest parts. Just deciding to do it is scary and a big choice. The toughness comes along the way. We are you. We aren’t some other species.
We want what you want out of life and don’t like being politicized or treated as an “other.”
How to Honor a Veteran
If you find any of this surprising, then let me suggest that the best way to honor a veteran on Veterans Day is simply to listen.
I mean really listen to the stories and lessons and experiences that veterans have to share. Veterans get the, “thank you for your service,” a lot (which by the way is pretty awkward to receive) but can tell when it’s just a token gesture. Supporting veterans means really listening and trying to help them with their unique issues. Clapping for the honor guard at a football game and then forgetting about them doesn’t do anything.
Listen to that person. They may really need it.
And I argue, most Americans need to hear it (though there is a very thin and hard to define line when it just turns into boasting or preaching).
I remember as a kid, the word ”veteran” for me conjured up the image of the homeless and sometimes unstable Vietnam vet who would rant about things I didn’t understand. Having become a vet myself, I now understand that those folks were struggling because of how vets from that war were treated once they came home.
They were simply desperate for someone to listen to them so they could unpack their many feelings and process them. But at the time, I just saw vets as a ticking time bomb of what we now understand to be PTSD. That is, unfortunately, how many Americans still see vets.
Celebrating Veterans Day
Every year I spend Veterans Day volunteering at the New York City Veterans Day Parade and stand with my best friend from my old battalion and his father, Tom, who is a Vietnam Vet. Every year I watch Tom wave and cheer and do his best to show support to the marching vets. Each time a Vietnam vet walks by he calls out, “Welcome Home!” He hugs them and isn’t afraid to shed some tears and pat them on the back like they are family he hasn’t seen in years. That is the “welcome home” he never got. Like many, he was a draftee who didn’t want to go but he went and did his part and, afterward, felt he didn’t have anyone to talk about it with.
Try to imagine the strain on a young person who didn’t even volunteer to go and then not being able to talk about what happened over there for fear of being ostracized in their community.
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We as a country should continue every day to support our veterans through healthcare, mental health, housing, and education benefits that they have earned.
Veterans Day, then, is a day that should stand to remind everyone that people in their very own communities chose to serve.
They should be honored and celebrated and for that day it’s ok to strut a little bit. It’s ok to be proud. It’s ok to tell stories and come together and share a toast with our friends.
Vets don’t ask to be held above everyone else or given special treatment for serving. They just don’t want to be taken for granted or for everything that they sacrificed to be forgotten. The greatest tragedy for a Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine is for their struggles to have been in vain. For their stories to fade away and all the sweat, pain, fear, hope, and hard work to be reduced to a dusty photo on the wall that people eventually stop looking at. Then all of those lessons learned in war are forgotten and the wounds of war are hidden, doomed to be repeated.
The meaning of Veterans Day is to make sure veterans stay in our minds and that we don’t let our men and women who wore the uniform be treated like Tom and his friends again.