This Tuesday is Veteran’s Day and many of us have the day off from work because of it. Like many of you, for years this day passed with little notice from me except for the time off and a few extra hours of sleep. That all changed when my son joined the military and eventually deployed to a war zone. There is nothing like waking up every single day, for an entire year, wondering what your son is doing in Baghdad that day, scanning the news online every time there is a report of a bomb in the market place, looking for a familiar face among the soldiers. Sometimes it was just me worrying, sometimes he actually was there. We had a system. As soon as he could get to a computer he’d send me the briefest of lines, “okay here” or “will call soon” was all he needed to say so I could breathe again, continue on with my own day.
Not only is my own son a combat veteran but through him, and through friends, I have gotten to know other young veterans. While I can’t know or understand all their struggles, I have been fortunate enough to have them share at least some of their stories with me. Hearing their stories, getting to know them, will change your feelings about war and politics and humanity. I know it’s changed me.
Someone asked me the other day, “What is so special about veterans, don’t all of us serve our communities in different ways? What about teachers, don’t they serve their communities?”
Well, let me tell you. Not to take away from teachers, or nurses, or anyone else but it is not really the same thing. With the exception of first responders, few of us go to work every day with the full knowledge that we could die on the job before we ever get to go home that evening. Most of us would never even think of signing up for such a career.
Veterans are men and women who believe so strongly in serving their country that they have signed away their own personal freedoms. They have agreed to live and work thousands of miles away from home, away from all they hold dear. Many, my own son included, when not assigned to a war zone, volunteer to go because they feel they need to do their part. They volunteered to work 24/7 for 365 days with maybe a week or two off after a few months if they are lucky. In doing so, they know that every minute of every day they will be in life and death situations. They know it will be beyond hot. They know it will be dirty and uncomfortable, that they will be carry about 80lbs of gear wherever they go. They know they will eat dehydrated food out of little bags and that they will have days, sometimes weeks, with no way to wash up, no way to get clean clothes. Yet, they are still willing do this, often so that someone else doesn’t have to.
No matter your political beliefs, you have to admire that kind of commitment.
So this is why we celebrate them. We are not celebrating war. No one likes war, even soldiers. We are celebrating bravery and sacrifice. While honoring them with a holiday and a parade is a good start, let me tell you what our young veterans really need.
Above all else, they need respect. They need you to understand the sacrifices they’ve made. Many of them coming back are changed forever; physically and mentally. They sacrificed their own health and well-being for all of us. They also sacrificed so that citizens in countries across the globe could have the same freedoms that we have here. They sacrificed so that women in those countries could have the freedoms their mothers and sisters here have here; could choose their own futures, and could vote on the future of their own country. They sacrificed so that children could go to school and so that other people’s families would be safe. They did it, honestly and truly, because they believe they were helping to make the world a better place. You don’t have to agree with that, you don’t have to share in their beliefs or their politics; you don’t even have to understand it. They just need you to respect their commitment, that’s all, just respect.
They also need jobs. These are highly trained professionals. We have already spent millions in tax dollars training them. Why not find programs that can translate that training into civilian jobs! They want to work. They want to continue to contribute. They also need healthcare. Many of them, even those who look fine on the outside, have come home with problems that need to be treated. Many of them have brain injuries whose full effects may not be known for years. Many have intestinal issues; lots of them have back problems from carrying gear on their backs every single day. A huge portion of them have lung issues from breathing in sand, chemicals and smoke for months on end. Even more have PTSD. (Forty-seven Maine veterans committed suicide in 2013). They need a healthcare system that is accessible, supportive and affordable. The VA is working on this, it’s getting better, but they still have a long, long way to go.
They also need patience from their families and old friends. They need you to understand when they need a little space, and they need you to just be there sometimes, when they can’t be alone. They need their peers to understand that just because they haven’t finished college yet they aren’t any less smart than you, they’ve just been busy doing other things. You see, while you were in Freshman English, they were in boot camp. While you were at frat parties, they were learning how to defend themselves and their buddies under fire, and how to give emergency medical care if it all went wrong. When you were home with your families over the holidays, they were eating MREs in their tent, or trying to catch even a little sleep before they had to go out on patrol again. They need you to not spout off your political opinions about a place you’ve never been if you aren’t willing to hear the truth from someone who has actually been there.
You won’t see a lot of young veterans marching in Tuesday’s parade. It is still too painful for them, too fresh. It doesn’t mean they aren’t as patriotic as all the older vets, it just means they are still hurting. Think of them on Tuesday, whether you go to work or not, whether you attend a parade or not. Think of those soldiers that are still away from home, when you go home to your own family at night. Think of the freedoms we have, and the things we enjoy and take for granted every day, and then thank a vet. Thank them by watching out and reaching out and helping all of us to keep them from continuing to commit suicide in record numbers. Thank them by hiring them, and by supporting legislation that helps them find jobs and get healthcare. Thank them by being a friend, someone they can talk to, so that those who are struggling don’t continue to feel alone. Thank them by writing your representatives and asking them to make jobs and healthcare for veterans a priority.
Thank them by remembering that every veteran is someone’s husband or wife, someone’s mother or father, someone’s daughter or son. Someday one of them could be yours and in fact . . . one of them is mine.