Happy Veterans Day.
What a strange and wrong-sounding sentiment. To greet a veteran and wish him a “Happy Veterans Day” seems like the wrong expression of gratitude. There’s nothing “happy” about war. There’s nothing to be celebrated. There’s nothing heroic about war. There’s no “winning” a war.
By no means am I implying that we shouldn’t thank and honor and appreciate our men and women who put their hands up, went overseas and served our country. Of course we should be doing just that. If you see a veteran today, thank him. Buy him a cup of coffee. Buy him a meal. Shake his hand and step outside of yourself. Realize what he gave up, and what he continues to give up. Appreciate that the war is still inside him. Appreciate that he may be (though hopefully isn’t) struggling still. Honor his sacrifice for you and your family.
But to wish one of these men or women a “Happy Veterans Day” seems like the incorrect greeting. I’m not the first person to say it, but while I don’t support our wars, I sure as hell support our soldiers. It’s a miserable business they enter into. It’s something beyond their expectations. And I say this not as someone with any sort of military background or first-hand experience on the battlefield, but as someone whose step-father served. As someone who’s brother- and sister-in-law served. As someone whose uncle served. As someone who’s seen the effects of war not “over there,” but back here. As someone who’s watched a man quietly eaten alive by what he endured in Vietnam — who carried the war inside of him and, only once, drunk and angry, let me in to tell me that the soldier to his right had his head blown off in combat.
For years I longed — anguished — to understand what was going on inside of my step-dad, who I loved. I had already fallen in love with the poetry of Bruce Weigl and the books of Tim O’Brien and Larry Heinemann and others. My fascination with the literature of the Vietnam War made me want to know and understand my step-dad in a different sort of way — it made me want to ask him what happened, and why he was how he was.
But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I tried once, but it was clear he wouldn’t (or couldn’t) talk about it. So instead I bought him some of the books I read. I thought to somehow engage him through literature might help. Honestly, I doubt it ever did. We connected in many ways, but this was not one of them. There just was no way in, because he, like so many of our veterans, can’t talk about the war they bring home with them. For those who can — who can seek out help and counseling to unburden what they may have done and/or encountered — I am thankful. Their families are thankful. But for those returning soldiers like my late step-dad who don’t know how to deal with what they carry home, I can only hope that we all of us can find ways to help them. We owe them as much, and so much more.
Thanking a soldier today might not be everything, but it’s something. The idea, though, is to make every day Veterans Day — to reach out to someone who needs help. And I am as complicit as anyone. By no means do I write this and point the finger, asking, “What are you doing to help?” What am I doing to help? Not enough. At the present time, an obscene 22 returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan are committing suicide on a daily basis. Extrapolate that number over a year. Horrifying.
I thought I’d include a wonderful and heartbreaking poem by Iraqi War veteran and poet Brian Turner, from his collection Here, Bullet:
It is a condition of wisdom in the archer to be patient
because when the arrow leaves the bow, it returns no more.
It should make you shake and sweat,
nightmare you, strand you in a desert
of irrevocable desolation, the consequences
seared into the vein, no matter what adrenaline
feeds the muscle its courage, no matter
what god shines down on you, no matter
what crackling pain and anger
you carry in your fists, my friend,
it should break your heart to kill.
Maybe we abandon wishing veterans a “Happy Veterans Day,” and instead say, “Thank you,” or “What can I do to help?” I wish I’d done that with my step-dad sooner and more often. I wish we all did.
Thank you, veterans, for your service.