To my fellow veterans: Our country needs you and your mission is not over
As our nation celebrates Veterans Day, my fellow veterans and I will no doubt hear multiple times “Thank you for your service” in brief conversations and in the form of a free cup of coffee or 20 percent off a meal. These well-meaning expressions of gratitude sometimes make us feel awkward and unsure of how to respond. “You’re welcome” seems too short, yet “Ah shucks, I was just doing what anyone would” seems a bit much.
Despite the slight twinge of self-consciousness, we are of course deeply grateful for the recognition and thanks. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, some of those who served were inexcusably castigated for fulfilling their service obligation to our country, and many of those veterans still carry the wounds inflicted on them once home. It is a gift that my generation of veterans – who served in the two decades of conflict that followed 9/11 – served during a time in America when those around us took and continue to take seriously this nation’s solemn obligation, as Abraham Lincoln stated, “To care for him (and now her) who have borne the battle.”
We live in an American society where – unlike in previous generations – military service is an exceptionally rare thing. Whereas in the past serving one’s country was seen as an expected matter of course, today it is seen as remarkable. Many Americans do not know a single person who’s served in the military. When the general public encounters veterans, they often aren’t sure how to talk to us about our service. A generous “thank you” too often serves as the beginning and end to a conversation.
As veterans, we are left with so much more to share about our time in the military and where our lives are now. The truncated conversation deprives the general public of the truth about how our military service wasn’t just a sacrifice that we made for our country, but also a formative experience that shaped us into who we are today, a group of people that have a great deal still to offer this country.
For many veterans, our fondest – and our most difficult – memories are of the time we spent in the military: the challenges we faced and overcame, the lifelong friends we made and sometimes lost. We should take pride in these memories and accomplishments. The risk, however, emerges when the military service of our past comes to define our current and future existence and when we allow ourselves or others to view the actions of our earlier years as our “obituary accomplishment,” the crowning achievement of our lives. We have chapters of our stories still to write, and too heavy an emphasis on what we did in years past can diminish the tremendous value of what we can (and should) do in the years ahead.
And so today, my challenge to my fellow Americans is to remember that appreciation can be a present tense acknowledgment, not just a nod to veterans’ past worth.
And to my fellow veterans, make your best days the ones in front of you. Accept the well-earned gratitude and recognition that you deserve on this Veterans Day. Take pride in the lessons you learned and the skills and strength you built through your military service. But don’t make the mistake of thinking you have not and will not accomplish even more that will be worthy of equal gratitude. Our country needs you; your mission is not complete. Many of our friends and fellow servicemembers weren’t lucky enough to enjoy life after the military. For those of us who have been given that opportunity, we owe it to our fallen comrades to make the most of it.
Seth Bodnar, a former Green Beret and Special Forces member, is the president of the University of Montana. He currently serves in the Montana National Guard.