I didn’t appreciate the importance of Veterans Day until I worked as a (civilian) counselor on military bases. I spent my days with troops getting ready to deploy into war or just coming back from combat, with spouses who juggled the endless details of life without their partner for months on end, and with commanders buried in the enormous pressures of training, guiding and caring for their troops.
As I came to understand the true nature of their work and their lives, I realized Veterans Day was a vitally important time for honoring those who serve. Certain key moments opened my eyes:
- A combat medic, just back from his fourth deployment talked about the utter devastation that washed through him each time he couldn’t save a combat brother. He told me reciting the Ranger Creed kept him from slipping into darkness. There in my office, he recited it, and I suddenly grasped the honor, the valor and the loyalty he strove for.
- Another day, at a change of command ceremony, I watched a command sergeant major step out from under the protective awning when torrential rain began drenching his troops. As sheets of rain saturated his uniform, I understood his message: “I’m with you. No matter what you endure, I’m here.”
- At a different base, I shivered on the tarmac at 3 a.m. on a freezing cold night, waiting to welcome those returning from a yearlong deployment. As their dusty boots clattered down the plane’s metal steps, their faces showed me the true cost of war and the real meaning of “coming home.”
- In a base chapel during a memorial service, I listened to the echoes of the un-returned roll call name, and sensed the breathtaking loss of their fallen friend.
I now understand veterans have lived at least part of their lives guided by values civilians may never really give much thought to: honor, loyalty, integrity, selfless service. These aren’t just words to our country’s warriors, they are the guiding principles that have stood the test of time and the heat of battle.
I know many civilians think Veterans Day honors the fallen, rather than being a day to remember all who have served — living or dead, past or present. Some civilians may never take the time to sincerely reflect on the importance of honoring and acknowledging those who served. Others figure their political beliefs about war mean they shouldn’t honor any who fought. I hope they can come to terms with the true complexity of our world and find a way to recognize those who serve.
I work with a Vietnam veterans’ writing group at the local VA hospital, and I hear the lingering hurt of being rejected and vilified for their service. I listen to the pain of not being seen for the sacrifices they made, and I can’t ignore the cost of 50 years’ of keeping silent.
I sometimes drift back to thinking of a commander who talked with me about his sincere concerns for his men and women as they faced the daunting adjustment of returning from combat. I understood the level of pristine responsibility he was shouldering, and it made me thoughtful about the responsibilities every service member shoulders.
For the responsibilities shouldered, the wounds (seen and unseen) suffered, the days in training, the nights far from home, the fears and wildness and unbearable horrors faced in combat; for the endless moments away from your loved ones, the burdens carried, the honor held, the commitments kept; for the tight bonds you felt, the courage and integrity you displayed, the sand and grit and jungle rot and bitter cold and searing heat you’ve dealt with; for the bright mornings of freedom, the quiet relief of coming home, the ongoing walk of returning; for the thousands of moments I’ll never truly understand ... I honor you, I thank you, I see you and I respect you.
On Veterans Day, I’ll be remembering and honoring every veteran who’s ever served.
Elizabeth Heaney is a licensed professional counselor who works with combat veterans. Her award-winning book, “The Honor Was Mine: A Look Inside the Struggles of Military Veterans,” is available at Amazon.com. She’s online at ElizabethHeaney.com.