Intellectually, everyone understands that Veteran’s Day is to honor and salute the men and women who have served in the Armed Forces. But, it takes a veteran to understand what it really means to be a Veteran, doesn’t it?
Being as I’ve never served in the Armed Forces, it would be incredibly arrogant of me to put myself on the same level as a veteran. In no way do I deserve that honor. However, there are some similarities between Veterans’ experiences and mine:
· Being far away from home. Veterans have a mission and they have a sense of kinship with their fellow soldiers, but each one of them experiences being far away from home in a very personal way. Who do they miss: a wife or fiancée, maybe a child or two (or the chance to witness their child be born), their glory days in High School, their mother and father, their car, their home? The food, the weather, smells, sights and sounds of home? Many of these things, I experience, too.
· Being alone. Even though there is a sense of community within a command, there is still a profound sense of being alone in facing their ordeal – it is a very personal experience. I too deal with being alone in facing being a foreign language teacher, even though there are many who do it alongside me.
· Being scared. Veterans had to deal with their fear in the face of the unknown, in the face of the enemy, in the face of death. They had to be strong and face these fears, and deal with them while doing their job. I too have to face my fears and deal with them while doing this job I’ve taken on, but certainly not to the caliber of Veterans who have seen combat.
· Finding small triumphs that make life bearable. If you listen to a Veteran speak, he or she will seldom, if ever, talk about the horror they witnessed or the negative things they had to deal with. Instead they like to talk about their small triumphs, such as figuring out a way to make a savory meal out of dehydrated food, or how they managed to entertain themselves in spite of abysmal living conditions and the terror that gnawed at them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is just human nature to find the positive in any situation, after all. If you’ve been reading this blog, you will find that I too use humor as a defense mechanism, downplay the bad and gloat over small triumphs.
· Once they return, having difficulty assimilating themselves back into the life they left behind. After strange sights in foreign lands, maybe even witnessing unspeakable acts many Veterans have a hard time resuming the life they had left behind, once they return to it. Yet it is expected of them to simply come back and pick up where they left off - being fathers or mothers, sons or daughters, friends, neighbors, fellows at Church… just as they always were. I do not know anything about this as I’ve not yet returned. However, it is said that even Peace Corps volunteers are so profoundly changed that they cannot go back to the life they lived before serving. I anticipate my return to the States – even for a visit, to show me that this adventure of mine will have the same effect.
Again, please do not misunderstand me: in no way am I comparing myself to the Service Men and Women who have fought for everything America stands for. The idea is simply for me to illustrate that I understand Veterans so much better now.
Many Veterans I know are profound, compassionate and artistic. They tend to want to see and create beauty and harmony around them, after witnessing discord and ugliness for a time during their lives. Many are intellectually gifted after witnessing firsthand the senselessness of violence. Many are quiet and introverted, knowing that they could never expose the depth of their feelings to the average civilian – ye average Joe just wouldn’t get it. Many are tender and loving, as they understand hatred and harshness in a way no civilian can.
Devoted father and gifted with an ear for music, this fine, upstanding young Veteran startles nearly comically at loud noises. This man has seen combat and heard one too many artillery shells explode close to his camp. He will probably never be able to hear a sudden, loud noise without remembering the gritty feel of sand abrading his face and the intense heat of the desert. My friend, I salute you.
There is a certain refined gentleman I know who cultivates vegetables and likes to read in the comfort of his study. But, if pressed to it, he would tell about savoring a pizza cooked in a salvaged toaster oven, and how his fellow soldiers would come over and borrow his oven. He never bartered or gained from having the only oven in camp; he shared freely and willingly. My friend, I am honored to know you.
Mild mannered and light-hearted, profoundly in love with his wife… to see him, you would think he is just an average Civil Servant: middle aged, children grown, counting the years until he can retire and draw his pension. No one knows that his basement is a workshop wherein he creates objects of stunning beauty and functionality. Marrying the two concepts together, he generously gifts his family and adorns his home with the creations his mind dreams up. My friend, your beauty humbles me.
And the list goes on. Their names live in my mind and their eyes burn in my memory. Eyes that give a glimpse of what they’ve seen and what they hide, what they carry inside them and how they balance their current life so gracefully against memories and feelings they might not ever get over.
A Veteran is not just a person who fought for America. A Veteran is a culmination of achievement, courage, overcoming and strength. A Veteran embodies everything that is good and right about being human, and never once do they gloat or brag about it. A Veteran is someone who doesn’t ask anyone for reimbursement for everything they sacrificed, most of which is invisible to the naked eye or the untrained heart.
So, if you feel inconvenienced by rerouted traffic because of that Veteran’s Day parade, or because the bank and Post Office are closed, please don’t think of Veterans with scorn, derision and incomprehension. Take a minute to think of Veterans as the embodiment of what we civilians have yet to learn and understand. Give them their due this one day, even though they deserve accolades and tributes every day.
Even though they deserve accolades and tributes every day, they wouldn’t expect or accept them… and THAT is the essence of being a Veteran.