Opinion: 'Thank you for your service' falls short
I have been listening to veterans’ stories since I was old enough to sit at a dinner table. I grew up on tales of my Naval aviator father and his friends flying the F-14, interspersed with lighthearted retellings of the hijinks he got into on cruise with his fellow Tophatters, and the various ways he earned himself demerits at the Naval Academy. Because of my dad, wherever veterans are telling stories, I feel at home.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had the honor and privilege to hear stories of service from my friends, friends of the family, and colleagues. Occasionally, I’ve been approached by perfect strangers with a tale to tell. Some of their stories were uplifting, while others have been gut-wrenching. Most of them made me laugh. Many brought me to tears. Even the most devastating among their stories has enriched my life. Each one brings me an immense appreciation for our veteran heroes, who have given up so much of their own freedom so that I could enjoy my own.
Unfortunately, in this day and age, most of the people we idolize are sports stars, actors, vloggers, and whatever you call the Kardashians. Unless we live near a military base, or have a loved one in the service, we do not have to understand the great demands we make of the American heroes who make up our all-volunteer military force.
That means we don’t have to think about the complicated training required to become a warfighter, or how difficult it is to periodically deploy to dangerous regions and work beside people whose norms and mores are not our own. We don’t often realize how tough it can be to return home and reinsert oneself into family and society as though you never left.
Most of us don’t consider how hard it can be for service members to leave behind the ritual, order, mindset, and camaraderie they’ve known in the military, and return to the civilian world. We ask our veterans to assimilate; to quiet the parts of their brain that are filled with the knowledge of flag protocol, when and how to wear a cover, or how to salute and properly address superiors, and then replace them with the inane pop culture references that make up so much of the civilian identity. In return for their assimilation, we bestow a sanctimonious “Thank you for your service,” and maybe a free stack of pancakes on Veterans Day.
Rather than asking for understanding and support from the civilian populace when they transition out of the military, groups of veterans – including those behind Nine Line Apparel, Other Side Threads,Article 15 Clothing, the Til Valhalla Project, and Rise Above Hardship – are using social media and the internet to lean on one another. They are turning inward to deal with their isolation from a citizenry that does not understand their experiences, and sometimes disrespects their sacrifices.
Our veterans deserve better. It’s time for civilians to step up. After all, how can we truly thank our veterans if we don’t understand what we have to thank them for? How can we preserve our memories of generations of heroes if we don’t take the time to sit and listen to their stories in the first place?
We can begin bridging the gap by reaching out to the veterans and service members in our lives. Don’t wait until Veterans Day; do it this weekend. Start with an open-ended request. Let your friend, loved one, colleague, or relative know how much they mean to you, and that, if they’re interested, you’d like to hear about the years they spent in the military. Offer up a home-cooked meal, or a few hours at their favorite bar or restaurant. I hope it starts a dialogue that changes your lives.
If you don’t know any veterans personally, there are other ways to learn about their experiences. For starters, you could read Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes’ "What It Is Like to Go to War," or check out the Team Never Quit podcast, where Navy SEALs David Rutherford and Marcus Luttrell interview inspiring military and civilian heroes. (The episodes with Mary Dague, Jose Sanchez, and Medal of Honor recipient Kyle Carpenter are among my favorites.) If the stories move you, share them with friends.
As civilians, we must work harder to understand our veterans’ experiences. We should listen to their stories so that we can preserve them for future generations. Most of all, we need to celebrate this country’s true heroes: those who have given of themselves in service to us.
Beth Bailey writes about veterans’ stories for Medium. She lives in Pinckney.