This Veterans Day, the nation will pause to express its gratitude for those who have served. There will be parades, military discounts at stores and free meals at restaurants.
Yellow ribbons and American flags will be displayed prominently in windows and on front porches. Service members and veterans will likely be greeted with a simple phrase: “Thank you for your service.”
As a mental-health professional working with veterans daily, as well as being in the military myself, I often talk to veterans about their combat service.
The hardships that many have experienced are substantial. Challenges, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide, remain prevalent, with suicide regularly taking more lives of service members than combat. The military service veterans describe to me often involves experiences more difficult than most can imagine.
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This time of year, the meaning of Veterans Day frequently comes up in our discussions. Sometimes a veteran will tell me that it makes them furious when someone says, “Thank you for your service.”
One explained his anger by saying, “I don’t think people have a clue what goes on overseas, they don’t know what they are thanking me for.” Another explained, “If people knew what I had done in war, they wouldn’t thank me.”
Most people are sincere when they utter “Thank you” to a veteran. Likewise, it is difficult to ignore that there have been few greater times in U.S. history to be a veteran than today. Education benefits, health care and an array of support from both government and non-profit organizations provide invaluable resources.
However, the majority are largely unaware of what our soldiers are asked to do on our behalf. Indeed, many of us may not want to know.
To become truly aware of what we have asked of soldiers would require us to step significantly out of our comfort zones. When wars are fought far away, by those who live and train behind gated and often rural communities and highlighted briefly in sound-bite news segments, it is easy to keep a safe distance between ourselves and the reality of war.
We do not have to learn about the morally ambiguous decisions soldiers make about whether collateral deaths of civilians are justified, or the impossible torment of a medic having to triage wounded friends and deciding who will receive life-saving care. We don’t have to hear about having to shoot children because their parents strapped explosives to them and ordered them to run toward American soldiers.
Though only veterans who have experienced the horrors of combat will ever truly understand their experiences, we each have an obligation to have a general understanding of their conflicts and actions.
We have this responsibility because those who join the military voluntarily give up their freedom; they take an oath and swear to obey the orders of their leaders. They do so for a greater good: for the freedom of their nation and the protection of their homes.
If we realize that we each carry some of the responsibility for every act done in war, I suspect the result would naturally be public representatives and policies using our military prudently, that medical and mental-health resources would become widely available for veterans, and perhaps most important, veterans would feel truly appreciated and welcomed when they return home.
Becoming informed does not require one to be an expert in international affairs or military tactics. Simply watching a documentary on the experiences of veterans (“Restrepo” would be an excellent start) or reading a memoir by a veteran would increase one’s understanding. Volunteering one day a month at a Veterans Administration hospital might be another powerful way to express gratitude and increase insight into the well-being of veterans.
If this is done by our entire community and veterans are embraced as they return, I strongly suspect we would see the terrible consequences related to PTSD and suicide fade.
This Veterans Day, before thanking a veteran, ask yourself if you understand exactly what service you intend to thank them for.
Timothy Olsen of Lexington is a mental-health professional and soldier.