This is a day of memoriam, not of celebration . . . “happy” does not EVER apply.
I originally published this article back on the previous version of this site, eight years ago, and thought it overdue for a republish. My source material at the time was an interoffice email, circa 1998, from a shipmate (with whom I’m still in touch), whose letter I’d still had in my digital files, but have since lost. At least to me, the original author is unknown.
As the graphic below illustrates, a mere seven percent of the total American population have ever served in military forces of the United States. (I remember reading somewhere that only 1% of the total American population is currently serving.) To make this number a tad more practical, if you were to door-knock any random twenty houses in your neighborhood, statistically only one of those households would contain someone who’s active duty, a reservist, a guardsman, a retiree, or other veteran.
On a day dedicated to national memoriam, we do well to properly remember those who’ve served, even if we cannot personally name even one of them.
It not that tough, usually, to figure out who’s currently serving in the military, even if that service is in a reserve capacity. Veterans, on the other hand, are different. Some veterans bear visible signs of their service: a missing limb, a jagged scar, a certain look in the eye. Others may carry the evidence inside them: a pin holding a bone together, a piece of shrapnel in the leg – or perhaps another sort of inner steel: the soul’s alloy forged in the refinery of adversity. Except in parades, however, the men and women who have kept America safe wear no badge or emblem. You generally can’t tell a veteran just by looking.
He – or she – is the cop on the beat who spent six months to a year in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq sweating two gallons a day making sure the soldiers in the field never ran out of food and water, and that the armored personnel carriers didn’t run out of fuel.
He is the barroom loudmouth, dumber than five wooden planks, whose overgrown frat-boy behavior is outweighed a hundred times on the cosmic scales by four hours of conspicuous bravery in the jungles of Vietnam.
She is the nurse who fought against futility and went to sleep sobbing every night for two solid years near the 38th parallel.
He is the old guy bagging groceries at the supermarket – palsied and aggravatingly slow – who helped liberate a Nazi death camp, and who wishes all day long that his wife were still alive to hold him when the nightmares come.
He is the Prisoner Of War who went away one person and came back another – or the Missing In Action who didn’t come back at all.
He is the Parris Island drill instructor that has never seen combat – but has saved countless lives by turning slouchy, no-account rednecks and gang members into Marines, and teaching them to watch each other’s backs.
He is the parade-riding Legionnaire who pins on his ribbons and medals with a prosthetic hand; or he is the career desk jockey who watched the ribbons and medals pass him by.
He is the guy standing in the unemployment line – a little taller and straighter than everyone else – who has enough experience from 20 years of active duty to fill a dozen resumes, and still can’t find anyone willing to hire him.
He is the anonymous hero at the Tomb Of The Unknowns, whose presence at the Arlington National Cemetery forever preserves the memory of all the anonymous heroes whose valor lies unrecognized with them on the battlefield or in the oceans’ sunless deep.
He is a shield and a sword against tyranny’s darkness, and he is nothing more than the finest, greatest testimony on behalf of the finest, greatest nation this world has ever known.
They are ordinary and yet extraordinary human beings, people who offered some of their lives’ most vital years in the service of this country, and who sacrificed their own ambitions so others would not have to sacrifice theirs. They are the people who – at some point in their own lives – wrote a blank check payable to the United States of America for an amount “up to and including my life,” knowing that check could be cashed at any time in the next thirty years. That is honor, courage, commitment, sacrifice, and service . . . and it is a concept understood by entirely too few Americans today, assuming that they could even recognize it for what it is.
- . . . It is the Soldier, not the priest, who preserves our individual freedoms of religion and worship.
- . . . It is the Sailor, not the campus organizer, who preserves our individual freedoms of speech and assembly.
- . . . It is the Airman, not the reporter, who preserves our nation’s freedom of the press.
- . . . It is the Marine, not the lawyer, who preserves our individual rights to due process, presumption of innocence, and a fair trial.
- . . . It is the Guardsman, not the union steward, who preserves our workers’ freedom to organize and demonstrate.
- . . . It is the Reservist, not the politician, who preserves our individual privilege to vote.
- . . . It is the veteran, who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who preserves the protester’s right to burn the flag.
Each and every right that we have as American citizens – whether the right to life, to liberty, to property, or to pursue happiness as we see fit – is preserved, first and foremost, by the Veterans of this nation, rather than by the poets and philosophers.
November 11th is Veterans Day. If you happen to meet someone who has served our country, then please first remember that “Happy Veterans’ Day” is completely inappropriate – because the day is one of memoriam, not celebration – and second, just taking the time to say, “Thank you” and/or “Welcome home” is all most veterans need to hear, and in most cases it will mean more than any medals they were ever awarded or passed over for.