Veterans Day, like Christmas, has a powerful holiday-kernel buried deep within, that is worthy of our attention and observance . Unfortunately, like Christmas, our culture has mangled and obscured that kernel, sometimes beyond recognition.
The culture has turned Christmas into an orgy of shopping and greed. The culture has twisted Veterans Day into an orgy of xenophobic, nationalistic pride, that hardly honors the ultimate sacrifice and service of those who have given their all.
Even Veterans often say this; at least in private. In the past several years, I’ve had private conversations with Veterans who, in moments of honest self-reflection have said, “It makes me feel guilty when people thank me for my service.”
Given the horrors of war they have experienced first-hand, given the conflicts around the globe where we’ve sent our best and brightest without moral justification, they find it a struggle to accept the off-handed “thank you” from strangers on the street, juxtaposed with the long-term inner conflicts, demons and scars they carry within.
So, let me take a shot at it. Let me take a shot at explaining what I mean when I say to a Veteran, as I always do, “Thank you for your service.”
But in order to get to my “Thank you,” let me first say “I’m sorry.”
I am sorry that we have sent far too many of you into conflicts that did not have the moral justification required to wage a war. I am sorry for how deeply so many of you have also come to see this truth as well. I am sorry for the shoddy and pitiful ways we treat you when you return. I am sorry that so many of you come back with physical scars that make us wince, and psychological ones that make you do the same.
I am sorry that you return to find that while you were giving your all, we were watching “Honey, Boo Boo,” eating Cheetos, and wasting time of Facebook. I’m sorry that so often we don’t live lives worthy of your sacrifice. For all these things, and more, I am sorry.
However, I am also still grateful to you too. And for this, I say “Thank you.”
Thank you for the optimism and selflessness with which you originally signed up to serve. Whatever the result of your service —and even if you now question the ways you were led and supervised in that service— you signed up to defend your country with all the noblest of intentions. That unsullied desire to serve, that sense of duty, patriotism, and honor, can never be taken from you, and is still within you, no matter what battlefield horrors you have experienced, or experience still. It was, for most of you, a pure and honest desire to serve that initially drove you to military service, no matter what happened afterwards.
Whatever you’ve experienced on the battlefield, whatever scars you carry, you survived. I’m grateful you had that survival instinct, and that you are still with us today so I can thank you. That survival instinct, that initial desire to serve your fellow human being —whatever else has happened since— those things are still within you.
Whatever wounds you carry, you still also carry those things too. And they will help lead you forward, throughout your civilian life. Which was, of course, the whole point of service in the first place.
And so I say to you, “Thank you for your service.”