There are roughly 20 million American veterans alive today, and some estimates indicate that as many as 60 million Americans have served in uniform since our nation’s birth. They’ve often served in far-flung places such as Normandy, the Chosin Reservoir, Germany, Libya, Okinawa, Fallujah, Mexico, Vietnam, Haiti, Kandahar and so many others.
Some served and fought closer to home — in places such as Manassas, Va., Gettysburg, Pa., and Lexington, Ky. Many spent their last days on Earth in these places. Although Memorial Day is a solemn remembrance of those we’ve lost on duty, Veterans Day is the day when we thank all of our veterans for their service and sacrifice.
And although it’s often forgotten when we speak of large amounts of sacrifice over long spans of time, each of these American veterans was a living, breathing person with hopes and dreams for their future. Their military service likely altered those hopes and dreams. For some, like me, service opened up opportunities to take on challenges in education and career fields that never would have occurred without the benefit of military training and experience.
For others, their personal ambitions died alongside them during an act of final sacrifice committed on behalf of their fellow Americans. It now falls to us, those who remain, to ensure that their ultimate sacrifice was worthwhile.
We cannot fulfill the personal ambitions of those we’ve lost, but we must strive to validate their sacrifice by ensuring that the nation that they fought and died for remains worth fighting for. We must further ensure that we take on only those fights that are truly worth the extreme sacrifice endured by veterans. Lastly, we must give service members the clarity of purpose, and the tools they need to win convincingly, when we do choose to fight.
Therein lies the answer to a riddle that perplexes an ever-increasing portion of the American population who has not served in the military: How do you thank a veteran for their service?
Of course, a simple handshake and a mention of thanks is always appreciated. But when it comes down to it, you can show the most sincere form of gratitude by paying close attention to the decisions made by our leaders regarding our national defense, international relations, and war. These are the decisions that dictate some of the most immediate outcomes for veterans and their families. These are also the decisions that often most severely alter the value of their service and sacrifices.
It is, of course, critical to pay close attention to all the decisions made by our elected officials. For example, if our nation eventually goes bankrupt because of overspending on health care, that failure will also ultimately affect the value of veterans’ service and sacrifices. However, the immediacy of the impact of war upon human life is unparalleled, and for no group is this truer than it is for veterans.
When our leaders show weakness and broadcast their unwillingness to toe the line, our enemies are emboldened and war becomes more likely. For example, the decision to unlock Iran’s access to over $100 billion in assets as part of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal was a decision that likely resulted in the world’s leading sponsor of terror spending about $1.7 billion to fund terrorism since that deal was signed. By any reasonable estimate, this decision increased the likelihood of future conflict.
Meanwhile, we are still fighting a war in Afghanistan — a war in which we’ve been engaged for nearly 20 years — and it’s not clear that either the American public, or most of Congress, are aware of this fact on a daily basis. And prior to the decision to pull them out, were most Americans aware that our troops were engaged in Syria?
Three hundred fifty-four members of the U.S. House of Representatives were quick to vote in favor of a resolution condemning the withdrawal of troops from Syria. But have these same politicians played a role in publicly defining a sensible mission for U.S. troops deployed to Syria or Afghanistan, along with a sound strategy to achieve those missions?
Instead of allowing politicians to simply vote against troop withdrawals or to state their distaste for war, use your vote to force them to think through the purpose of deploying troops to combat, and to force them to evaluate the process of achieving that purpose. If they oppose a given military action or defense strategy, force them to articulate why and how their alternative path will credibly make future conflict less likely.
A strong, vigorous national defense is critical to maintaining peace and stopping conflicts before they start, and veterans know this. Our enemies and adversaries must know that they will pay a painful price if they endanger our nation. Yet, if a mission is too cloudy or complex to explain to the American people, it is likely not worth sending their children to complete it. Likewise, if politicians are too afraid to articulate a mission publicly, it is almost certainly not worth dying for.
By paying attention to these life and death decisions, and forcing politicians to go through the hard steps before deploying our service members to combat or opposing a given conflict, you help to ensure that military missions will be clearly stated and worthwhile. Moreover, you help to ensure that the nation for which our veterans fight remains honorable and worthy of sacrifice.
Today, somewhere in Afghanistan, a young American service member is setting off on a patrol. If his leadership has done their job, he knows the mission of that particular patrol, his purpose for the next few hours, and what to do if he encounters the enemy. But do you think he knows the larger purpose of why he is there? Does he know what victory looks like in Afghanistan? Does his family? Do you?
God willing, that young American will be back home in a matter of months. And when he returns, you can shake that veteran’s hand and thank him for his service. He will appreciate that. In the meantime, send a message to those who deployed him, and let them know that you expect them to articulate the mission of his deployment with clarity, and to do so publicly. Ask them to define what victory looks like in this fight he’s been asked to take on. He’ll appreciate that as well.
Kevin Nicholson is president and CEO of No Better Friend Corp., a conservative public policy group in Wisconsin. He is a combat veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps (Iraq, 2007 and Afghanistan, 2008-2009) and was a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2018. Follow him on Twitter @KevinMNicholson.