With the military being one of the most trusted institutions in the country during these divisive times and with the lessons we have learned from how our brothers and sisters were treated when they returned from Vietnam, we as veterans are accustomed to being thanked for our service. As Veterans Day approaches each year, the veteran community is bombarded with freebies and discounts from all manner of consumer establishments in addition to the cacophony of thank-yous.
But for many of us, these expressions of appreciation ring hollow. They come across as banal platitudes that don’t mean anything when so many of us still struggle with the challenges of reintegration. We get frustrated or angry because civilians “just don’t understand”. And why would they? Only a small percentage of Americans have served in the military, and fewer and fewer people have friends or family members who served. So even if folks want to be supportive, many just don’t know how.
It’s not just me. According to a recent poll by the Cohen Veterans Network highlighted in this Newsweek article, almost half of the veterans surveyed were uncomfortable being thanked for their service. The article went on to give tips to civilians about how to interact with veterans in more meaningful ways. While these tips are useful to civilians who want to show their appreciation on Veterans Day, how civilians show their appreciation is not something we can control. However, we can control how we respond.
A few years back, I heard Clint Bruce, a Naval Academy alumnus who went on to serve as a Navy SEAL, speak at a Veterans Day at the National WWII Museum. In his speech, he shared how he started responding to “thank you for your service” with a sincere “you were worth it.”
Since the end of the draft, most of us joined the military to be part of something bigger than ourselves, which can be easy to forget when our service ends. For me, responding to “Thank you for your service” with “you were worth it” immediately helps connect me to the reason that I volunteered to serve in the first place. It also creates an opening to talk about my service in a more meaningful way with people who have not served.
Over time, I reflected on the call to action at the end Bruce’s speech. Like other veterans who have lost friends – whether it was in combat, training accidents or suicide after service – I have often felt guilty about still being here. But the lesson that finally started to sink is that while I really do believe that the civilians that I know and love were worth any sacrifices I might have made, those who did not make it back thought that we veterans were worth that sacrifice. What do we do with that?
Our task as veterans who are still alive and breathing is to live lives worthy of those sacrifices. We have the skills, training and experience to make our communities better by continuing to lead and serve. If you are not sure where to start, check out The Mission Continues, Team RWB, and Team Rubicon - three national organizations with a local presence that make it possible for veterans to connect with others and help strengthen their communities from the ground up. But continued service doesn’t have to be with a veterans organization.
Go out and find the needs in your community that match your skills and passion. Connect to your neighbors and others in your community. And when someone thanks you for your service today, smile and tell them that they were worth it. Then, remember that you are, too.