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'Thank you for your service': The meaning of Veterans Day, for them and for us

'Thank you for your service': The meaning of Veterans Day, for them and for us
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I’m fortunate to be among the 17.4 million Americans who have served in our Nation’s armed forces. A family tradition that began with my father, who served as an Air Force enlisted Airman, has so far produced four Air Force officers: my brother, a nephew, my daughter, and me. Despite the hardships of military life, we all agree that the honor of serving our country far outweighed its burdens.

Today, it’s not unusual to hear Americans thanking veterans for their service, especially on days like today — Veterans Day. When I hear it, I smile and say “Thank you.” When I thank fellow veterans for their service, it’s a show of respect that comes from the heart.

As common as this salutation has become, it’s important to remember that many Americans only recently began extending it to those who wore or still wear the uniform. It wasn’t that long ago that veterans were just as likely to be jeered as cheered. That was clearly the case during and immediately after the Vietnam War. In those days, I got more expressions of disgust than thanks when I wore my uniform in a public place. What changed? It’s hard to say. All I know is that I prefer the respect veterans get today.

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While Veterans Day provides all Americans a unique opportunity to thank veterans for their service, I’d like to suggest a few ways to make the salutation more than just a sentiment.

If you want to thank a veteran today:

Thank her for the many days and nights she spent away from family and friends. By definition, a veteran is a person who took an oath to defend the rest of us, wherever and whenever threats arise. Because most of those threats have arisen outside the U.S., our leaders dispatched us to serve and to fight in some of the world’s most austere locations.

Ask him about his service. Most veterans are proud of their service; some are reluctant to talk about it. When I was a cadet at the Air Force Academy, one of my fellow cadets struck up a conversation with our janitor, an elderly gentleman we typically ignored and whose name we didn’t know. As they got to know each other, my friend discovered that Bill Crawford was an Army veteran who fought in World War II; my friend had just read a book about that war and had come across the name “William Crawford” in a section about the fighting in Italy. His next question was, “Are you the Bill Crawford who was awarded the Medal of Honor in Italy?” He was — and, at that point, our lives changed. In an institution where our professors served knowledge from lofty heights, it was our janitor — a veteran — who taught us humility. There is value in engaging a veteran about his service, even if he’s “only” a janitor.

Thank them for defending us. Having just emerged from one of the most contentious elections in memory, we are all painfully familiar with the rights we enjoy as Americans. We know some of those rights, like voting, because we exercised them. We know other rights, like the right to bear arms, because we heard some candidates tell us that other candidates would take away those rights. What we didn’t hear was the fact that, but for our veterans, we probably would have lost those rights long ago. Since our nation was founded, veterans have defended it — and our rights — against countless enemies. The phrase “All gave some, and some gave all,” reflects the fact that when Americans join the military, they offer their lives as payment for our freedom.

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If you see a veteran today, thank him or her for their service. More than thanking them, though, think about the experiences that made them a veteran. Appreciate the hardships they and their families endured during their service. Think about all the homeless veterans who live day-to-day in silent hunger.

Take pride in knowing that you walk with Americans who are willing to sacrifice everything for your freedom. Understand that the “everything” they gave may include lost limbs, psychological trauma, and other disabilities that now make it harder for them to “fit in.” Know that they served the rest of us with pride, and pray that knowing their pride will help us heal our divisions.

Above all, consider what this nation would be without them.

Steven J. Lepper is a retired Air Force major general. He served from 2010 to 2014 as Deputy Judge Advocate General of the Air Force. He was also Deputy Legal Counsel to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior “crisis communicator” for the Department of the Air Force.