Veteran’s Day is an interesting holiday. To some, it is an excuse for an extra vacation day. I dare to stereotype some of them and say that these individuals have not served their country, nor have they likely been close to family members who might have. They might recognize the service and sacrifice of our military members, but they do not feel the pride or sorrow often associated with it.
To others, it is a day of remembrance and humility. They have served in the military, come from military families, lost friends or loved ones to their service, or they understand the sacrifice of giving a life to something bigger than themselves. Their service, if they fall into that category, could stem from legacy or a calling. They saw the Marine Corp commercials and felt it was right that they belonged there. Maybe their father served in the military, and his father before him, and it was almost expected that this soldier would do the same.
I do not come from legacy. I did not grow up on the knees of old soldiers telling me of the ones who came before them or how I would carry on their story. I know of many family members, both living and dead, who served in the military, but their service was not a driving factor for me. I was not the next in line of a long line of heroes. I am proud of their accomplishments, their service, and their sacrifice as much as I am proud of my own.
I cannot say I fall into the category that answered a calling either. I did not take my first step and vow to pick up arms in defense of my country. The games of imagination my sister and I played often portrayed us as heroes, but more clearly as the undefined heroes with super powers like flight, strength, and x-ray vision. I did not watch commercials and newscasts depicting our military and long for the day I could join them.
When I made the choice to join the Army, I knew what I was giving. I knew what my obligation meant. There were many days that I complained, just like the next soldier. I have told people, when they asked me about my service, that there is a lot of suck in the Army, but it is vastly outweighed by so many things that the suck just trickles away. The relationships developed strengthened us through the bad parts. We might suffer, but we do not do it alone. Our buddies are experiencing the same things we are.
I took for granted every day that I put on my uniform. I felt pride in it, true, but my mind was constantly focused on the tasks at hand. I never took a moment and considered what I was doing so that someone else did not have to. It was not until I had been in the military for about two years, and had seen the end of my first deployment, that I really understood the level of pride others had in me, even if I did not have it in myself. I did not feel I had “sacrificed” for my country, but I had given my word and committed to it.
I was waiting in the USO in the airport in Atlanta, Georgia. I was on my way back to Iraq after my two-week leave at home. I was traveling alone – in uniform because I was going back to my deployment – but was in a much larger group of other soldiers going the same direction. There was a unit of them, and then a handful of others like me, just hitching a ride back to the desert.
It was in this airport that I saw two things that changed the way I looked at my service and the military in general. I saw a child – she was maybe eight or nine – knock on the door to the USO and ask the volunteer at the desk if she could come in and thank the soldiers. Hearing only that part of her request, I figured I had missed part of the conversation and went back to my magazine. When she got the row of chairs I was occupying, she addressed all three soldiers in my vicinity.
“Thank you for keeping me safe at night.”
That was hard for me to swallow because I had never felt my service affected any one person’s safety. I had a serious mission when I was deployed, but at home I was a parachute rigger. The only person’s safety that I had any control over was the soldier to my left and right, be it with the parachute I packed or the guard I was pulling. This child made me feel like my contribution, minuscule though it had been in my eyes to that point, mattered in the larger picture. I was one piece to a larger puzzle.
After the brief encounter with the girl, and a much longer wait for the next flight to Kuwait, I was brought to tears by a display of gratitude so large that I never would have expected it in an airport in Atlanta. The volunteer organized us by branch of service and name and we moved slowly out into the hallway. To get to our gate, we would have to walk along an upper balcony that looked over a central gathering place in the hub of gates.
As we turned the corner, and our uniforms became visible to other travelers, I heard a slow and steady applause begin to grow louder. With it came cheers, whistles, and shouts. I saw businessmen with their briefcases, moms with their children, pilots and stewardesses, and all other sorts of traveler stop their movement and pay their respects to this group of military members heading back to Iraq. It brings a tear to my eyes even now, years later, just like it did then. There was no shame from any soldier as we wiped our eyes, mouthed “thank you”, and promised to ourselves that we would be coming home soon.
It was after that day that I finally understood Veteran’s Day. I still do not think I can explain it effectively, but it is a day to celebrate not just our soldiers, but the reasons they do what they do. Every person who took just a few seconds of their time that day are among the reasons we deal with the suck, the tedium, and the sacrifice. They are our friends and loved ones as much as they are complete strangers. They remind us that the soldiers we lost along the way, our friends and brothers and sisters, did not give their lives in vain. They fought for something, even if they did not know what it was.
There is no easy closing to this one. As I watch the messages on Facebook thanking me directly, or the tributes on television or the Internet thanking all service members everywhere, I am renewed with my choices and privileged to serve as much as I am proud to.