Being the non-morning person I still am, back in grade school I was begrudgingly off to school one Veterans Day.
I made the turn to go downstairs and caught a glimpse of my dad still in bed. Highly unusual behavior for him. My dad was rarely sick and rarely missed work. I stopped stunned and rather impertinently asked, “Why aren’t you at work?” Without looking in my direction he replied, “Because it’s Veterans Day.”
He offered no further justification or clarity. At age 7 though you can have a warped sense of inequity and it seemed enormously unfair my dad got a day off when I had to go to school. Seeing a window of hooky opportunity, I asked, “Well why don’t I get to stay home too?”
This time he looked me direct in the eye. “Because I earned it. You didn’t.” As an Army brat I could sense the implied, “Dismissed.” I went to school wondering, how do I earn it?
I’ve shared this memory many times. It’s one of the most clear memories I have of my father at that time in our lives. And those 10 words he spoke, in the manner he spoke them, encapsulate much of his character.
Every year, I know millions feel a bit like 7-year old me wondering, how do we earn it, a little afraid to ask any further, and with perhaps a feeling of exclusion. But we can never overlook the sacrifices required by the unique form of service entered into by our veterans.
With 15 years behind us since Sept. 11, this year seems even more poignant. A whole new generation of men and women have served our nation at war — only. As their sacrifices expand over the years, we must be careful to not allow the military-civilian divide to expand.
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Not doing anything is grossly insufficient while likewise placing veterans on a pedestal is detrimental and even awkward for the service members themselves.
I don’t have my dad around any more to ask him “How do I earn it?” and I regret it never occurred to me in his life to thank him for his service. His sister did once. In a book she gave him in which she wrote a personalized note of gratitude.
I saw the emotion he fought in his eyes as he read maybe the only thanks he ever received for his 20 plus years in uniform and as a Vietnam veteran. So what can the average citizen do that really gives meaning to the day for veterans themselves? I did an informal poll of many veterans I know and asked them individually what one thing could a civilian do.
Here are there recommendations of ways to mark Veterans Day.
- Call/Message the veteran in your life and thank them. Just like you might call mom or dad on Mother’s or Father’s Day or anyone on their birthday. Don’t miss the opportunity to send a message to your veteran on this day.
- Give back to disabled/homeless veterans. Doing something to honor them would be awesome.
- Be informed.
- Have a conversation with a vet.
- Visit the VA or nursing homes and find a veteran and thank them for their service, maybe even bring a small gift of a flag or blanket.
- Volunteer at a veteran service center. Visit Arlington National Cemetery (or other national cemeteries).
- Take time to sit with a vet and just talk to veterans.
- Donate time or money to a veterans support organization such as TAPS or Team RWB or to a veterans crisis center.
- Thank an older veteran. The ones with the Vietnam service caps, etc. just don’t get enough recognition.
- Donate time or money to an organization that’s recognized by the VA for helping veterans.
- Volunteer in a capacity to interact and support veterans that otherwise are forgotten.
- Volunteer for a veteran organization, visit them at the VA or donate to a veteran organization.
- Help homeless veterans by providing food, donations, etc.
- Take 30 minutes or an hour to site with a pre-9/11 vet and just talk to them.
- Offer to pay for a veteran’s meal.
- Just say thank you.
- Spend time with veterans, allowing for stories to be told and for understanding to be had. Particularly with older veterans in nursing homes, hospitals, retirement villages, etc.
- For veterans, it’s a good day for a battle buddy check. Reach out to people you served with or those who served who are close family/friends. So much emphasis, rightly, is placed on those who have passed on Memorial Day.
There is a mutual mission to maintain a good and free country of, for, and by the people. We can’t all wear the uniform, but we can all get involved in the community near us. Veterans want you to get involved. Theirs is not a world from which you need feel excluded.
I’m grateful that my own civilian life has played out in a way that every day I get to serve the veteran community. I never have to wonder did I finally measure up to my dad’s definition of earning it. You should not have to either.
To start serving on Veterans Day, check out the following organizations and opportunities:
- To volunteer to help at a VA center near you: Department of Veterans Affairs
- To get involved with veterans and raise awareness for veterans issues: Team Red, White, and Blue & Got Your 6
- To help disabled veterans: Disabled American Veterans
- To help families of fallen veterans: Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors
- To help homeless veterans: Final Salute, Inc. & USVETS
- To visit retired veterans: Armed Forces Retirement Home
- To visit veterans cemeteries: National Cemetery Administration & Arlington National Cemetery