In a perfect world, there would be no need for a military. In a less than perfect world, there would be a military but it would never be used. In an imperfect world, we would use the military, but only when all else failed.
And then there’s our world, where we send our young men and women into harm’s way, sometimes for noble causes, sometimes not. And they are away from loved ones, and they sweat and are traumatized and maimed and bleed and die. And sometimes, we say, “thank you for your service.”
The military and democracy are often strange bedfellows. There are times when the political leadership commit forces for reasons the people do not support. Many of us saw the result of this when we returned from Vietnam.
For the most part, those of us who served were above politics, and, in reality, we did not even do it for “Duty, Honor, Country.” We did it for the brothers and sisters who stood and marched and sailed and flew with us; for the brotherhood, we were absolutely committed never to let down. We did it because we stood shoulder to shoulder with people just like us, and we were exhausted, and scared, and lonely together. We formed a sacred bond with the glue of shared extreme experience oftentimes on a knife’s edge between living and dying. We were part of something bigger than ourselves.
And we didn’t expect gratitude. For me, my service was a privilege, an opportunity to discover what I value, and what I was willing to do for those values. What we all lived was often raw, totally removed from our previous lives as civilians. I believe most veterans feel an internal pride for what they did but keep that pride private. And they know to the very fiber of their being that their service formed the core of who they are today. So, when we hear “thank you for your service,” we appreciate those words. But in truth, for me, it comes up short, never crossing the huge gap between those fine sentiments and the intensity of what we actually experienced.
We are creating more veterans every day. I am hopeful that the wisdom, judgement, courage, and compassion forged in the experiences of these men and women will guide our society through the troubled waters ahead. But just as with we veterans of times past, this new breed will be unlikely to come forward with the full breadth of their potential contributions unless we ask and listen and value the priceless nature of what they have to offer us.
So this Veterans Day, don’t just say thank you. Ask a veteran what it means to them to have served. Listen. Try to feel their experience.
Covid 19 is an assault on our country and our species. From our veterans, we can garner hope, resilience, and just what it means to serve others. Yes, let’s celebrate these heroes among us because we will miss the essence of what it means to be a patriot if we don’t.
As a veteran and as a public health physician, I call on you to serve others during this assault. WEAR A MASK!
Roger Landry Col USAFMC (ret), Falmouth, Massachusetts