Our veterans need to know – above politics – that we do not just “think well” of them, we revere them.
Our veterans need to know – above politics – that we do not just “think well” of them, we revere them. We do not just “thank them for their service,” we honor them for volunteering to fight – as necessary to die – defending us. They are not cut from common cloth, but something different.
Ask one, and they will say nothing of the kind. They will nod and smile, glad that someone remembers, even bothers to remember. They will not think great things of themselves, even if you do. Their mind will drift back, if time permits, to others they knew, those they served with.
That is what they will do, because recognition is not the point, even if ribbons mark moments in time. That is not what drew them to the fight. That is not what kept them up at night.
What drew them is something else, a call answered, an inner pounding, maybe a friend or family tradition, a need to take the fight – epic “good fight” – to sources of evil, do the mission.
And there is a word – mission. Every service member knows it, drinks deeply of, like the thirsty hiker from an alpine stream. Mission is what wakes them up, fills them in sleep, close as their weapon. It is why they are where they are, know what they know, do what is needed.
What is mission? It is life purpose, sometimes collapsed into one all-or-nothing moment, or perhaps spread across sleepless years, or 179 days, or a month, in which they “make it happen.”
Vets know. They all know. It is what propels them – and protects those back home. It is the power of doing raw justice, unswerving, no apologies, resolved to answer what “cannot stand.”
Their mission creates ours, understanding truth. We owe those who serve and served on distant ramparts, whether for a short time or long, here or abroad, everything. Their pledge is to us.
A few hundred thousand WWII veterans still live among us, from the original 16 million. Try to find one. If you do, speak a little, give sincere thanks, then just listen and learn.
A receding number of Korean War and Vietnam War vets walk among us, saying little. Find them, encourage, and again listen. They know things worth hearing, saw things most never will. Younger vets, from recent conflicts, Panama, Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, deserve the same.
Why – at this juncture – must we remember? Because we – “the many” – are protected by “the few.” Less than one percent of Americans serve on active duty. All the veterans alive today – all those who fought or served, active or reserve, National Guard to every service branch, represent less than seven percent of our entire country.
Why else? Another underreported epidemic is afoot – nothing to do with COVID. It is an epidemic of significance, facing law enforcement too, but it hit the military hard in recent months.
Stresses that torture steel in flight, shake powerful rockets through Max Q, are akin to stresses that torture a person in harm’s way – knowing what they do not know, yet ready to act.
Like metal which loses temper, rockets that need refurbishing, men and women who have served need refreshing, which can mean different things for each, but mostly a return to peace.
That has been hard lately – hard because veterans need time, patience, and freedom to reorient, refuel, and realign. It is harder with COVID, disrespect from leaders for what they are doing, what they have done, the high calling to which they rose – for us.
The result is rough news, on the suicide front. Data just out says veterans are dying faster from suicides than COVID, 163 taking their own lives in the third quarter of 2021 alone. That should not happen, must not continue, and on the national stage, people need to sit up and notice. See, e.g., Nearly twice as many military members died from suicide July-Sept than from coronavirus since pandemic’s start.
If the world delivers stress to every doorstep, heartache to every heart, loss and grief, remorse and regret, veterans carry inordinate stress, bear unseen scars, whether on the front lines, in the rear, deployed with injury, returned unscratched, or home front. They were ready – and being ready means spending long hours in your own head, processing fear, guilt, and other things.
So, the point of this piece is straightforward. Honor veterans you meet, because they are different. Talk with them, find them, listen to what they know, and you may not. Begin with deep respect, knowing you are pushing open a gate to sacred ground, and then go from there.
On the national level, as well as personal, remember that the “black dog” of stress did not shadow their door by chance. They signed up to meet him, stepped to battle, for you and me. Some carry the burden of that decision forever. Honor them, as they honored you.
Robert Charles is a former assistant secretary of state for President George W. Bush, former naval intelligence officer and litigator. He served in the Reagan and Bush 41 White Houses, as congressional counsel for five years, and wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003) and “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), the latter on WWII vets in a Maine town.