As I’m planning Thanksgiving, working on some pieces I’m writing, and intermittently dipping into the social stream that is Twitter, Facebook, I’m reminded by various “thank a vet” messages that this is, in fact, Veterans’ Day. For many people this had become a “free” day off work or a time to hit sales. One result of the unbelievable increase in our military presence worldwide has been to sensitize non-military families to the fact that this day is more than an opportunity to get a jump on holiday shopping. This is a day to reflect on the service of our veterans.
Growing up in the Air Force was a decidedly mixed bag and many military brats will know what I mean. Many good things came of it, and many challenges as well. I could write a book and probably will do so one day, but this year I feel compelled to put just a few thoughts together today. I hope this will reach some people who have not thought about these things. I hope it will encourage readers to reflect on our rights and responsibilities, our duties to each other as citizens and human beings. All of these are more significant and more heartfelt in light of how so many of us are struggling in this recession.
For those of you who don’t already know, I’m estranged from my father who served in Vietnam. I remain open to a reconciliation but so far attempts at that have not succeeded. I know first-hand the damage war inflicts on our veterans. When I was a young woman, I was the first person to put a brochure in my father’s hands describing a then-new diagnosis of something called “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”. His own child, not his CO, not anyone doing his debrief, not his new boss. Me. PTSD is commonly used term now and the diagnosis has extended to cover situations that create symptoms akin to what veterans of war face. I know we’ve made progress in naming some of these scars of war, but we have miles to go.
Many young men and women today, like my father, chose service for a jumble of reasons they themselves may or may be able to clearly articulate. No small part of it is their sense of duty or responsibility to uphold what our country believes we stand for in the worldwide family. This is honorable and should be recognized.
For too many, my father included, service carries a promise of opportunity that is too hard to come by in the civilian world. It is an old, hard fact that for the most disadvantaged young people, military service can be their only way up and out. It may be their best option for breaking free of the hopeless lack of opportunity they see in their own neighborhoods, their only shot at an education. This is shameful for our society, not for those servicemen and women. This economic incentive doesn’t detract from the weight of their sacrifice, but we really should aspire to make our society one where anyone might choose service, free of those burdens.
As we hear about the drawing down of troops around the world, I am mindful of what these young men and women will come home to. Any war is hell. Any vet will have been changed by their service abroad. Many will be scarred and broken in ways that the rest of society would rather not look at too closely. But we must. The rates of addiction and suicide for our veterans is a national disgrace and speaks volumes about how far we have to go, still.
We cannot ignore what makes us uncomfortable, simply because we don’t have a quick or simple solution. We are disingenuous to say we “honor our vets” if we ignore the holes in our medical, psychological and social support to them when they return.
I know first-hand the scars the families of many veterans bear, often in silence. We live with the sometimes haunted, sometimes violent, people returned to us in bodies that may or may not resemble the ones that left. Very few hit a war zone and return wholly unscathed. What will we do to support the families of the vets who need us most?
We cannot wear a pin, slap on a bumper sticker, and then feel satisfied we’ve done our part. Our servicemen and women deserve more, their families deserve more, our society is capable of more. I don’t have an answer, just hope: that we can better support of our veterans, that their families will find more support than previous generations’ did, that people will hire vets coming home, even if they return with new challenges.
This Veterans’ Day make a promise to volunteer at a shelter or meal service for vets. Or, make a donation to someone doing good work in support of vets. If you’re a praying person, do that. If you’re a letter writer, ask your elected representatives what they’re doing. Just make sure that when you say we honor their service, we do it in a meaningful way. It’s our duty to them.