Thinking about veterans

Posted 11/9/22

Veterans Day officially commemorates the end of World War I on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 and honors U.S. veterans of all conflicts.

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Thinking about veterans


Veterans Day officially commemorates the end of World War I on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 and honors U.S. veterans of all conflicts.  

Tomorrow there will be celebrations to mark this very special day.

What does it mean to be a veteran? The answers to this question are as unique and infinite and the veterans themselves.

Let me try to explain it this way.

We are the veterans and we have always been here. We have written a blank check on the account of our lives to answer the call of duty.

We are your mom, your dad, your sister, brother. We are the uncle who is always quiet and who does not want to talk about his service. Our uniforms are packed away, our decorations mean nothing in your world. We march in parades, belong to the American Legion and the VFW. We stand at attention, remove our hats and pay respect to our flag and our national anthem. We are proud of our service.

When we were little, many of us played at war with toy weapons on imaginary battlefields, where our dead comrades would simply stand up and continue to assault the next hill. We attend funerals of fellow veterans and “Taps” brings back so many memories as well as a tear to our eyes. For this final bugle call is not a call to arms but a call to rest; it says, “Well done, good servant, stand down.” We love our country.

In the Revolutionary War, we carried muskets to free this new country from the oppression of a foreign monarchy and a heavy-handed colonial occupation. Against all odds, we won.

In the Civil War, we fought against our own countrymen and sometimes family to codify the declaration that all men are created equal.

In “The War to End All Wars,” WWI, we carried our Springfield rifles into the trenches of France, fought poison gas, the foe and the Spanish flu. Those of us who did return home found that the country we fought for was unprepared and unconcerned about the care so many of us desperately needed.

In WWII, it was the M1 rifles we carried onto far-off beaches and battlefields to fend off two enemies and rid the world of fascism, unspeakable brutality and war crimes to liberate those whose only desire was to live in peace.

In Korea, we fought against the ideology of communism and an enemy who looked very much like the civilians we were fighting to liberate from the Red Tide.

In the jungles of Southeast Asia, we again fought to stop the spread of communism and liberate the citizens of Vietnam, while being exposed to a toxic defoliant, Agent Orange. In the end, it was as if we’d never been there except for a wake of death, destruction and environmental carnage left behind and the physical and psychological baggage we brought home as souvenirs. When we returned home, we were disrespected and spat upon by those we fought to protect. We were called horrible names and blamed for the war instead of blaming the government that sent us there.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, we fought the war on terror predicated by the horrific attacks of 9/11, only to retreat in a haphazard, chaotic manner and cede the territory back to those who attacked us or cultivated the culture of terrorism. In so doing, we abandoned many who fought with us.

We returned home afflicted by horrific physical injuries, the moral injury you call PTSD and, as a bonus, a plethora of diseases as a result of inhaled airborne particulates produced by the ever-present burn pits.

Those of us who did not see combat understand that, regardless of our job, it was our role to support killing the enemy. All service members are in fact the human hardware of war. We also carry the burden of knowing that we killed as surely as if we pulled the trigger.

We endured the transformation from civilian to a weapon of war and were given the tools and the training to kill the enemy.

We saw things no one should see, buddies killed and wounded, their blood on our uniforms, innocent civilians, suffering through no fault of their own, as armies destroyed their homes to gain ground.

We comforted scared children and thought about our own.

We sustained moral injury when we did what we were trained to do and, in doing so, betrayed everything we believed about right and wrong. The psychological burdens we carry have cost us our families, jobs, friends and our freedom.

We sustained physical injuries that changed our lives forever.

We looked into the eyes of our enemy and saw ourselves.

We have to fight our government for the care we earned.

We have lived on the streets and you have walked by every day.

We have been summarily dismissed with a less-than-honorable discharge for our sexual orientation, our actions borne out of physical or psychological injury, or because our unit command did not want to prosecute one of their own for sexual assault we suffered at the hands of a comrade.

We struggled to return to our place in the towns and cities we left behind; somehow it was not the same and few if any understood us.

When we could no longer confront our demons, we became one of the 22 vets who take their own lives each day.

You might think that we are angry, feel betrayed, are ashamed, lonely and at times sad, and you would be right. We have done our best to take care of you even though you did not always return the favor. But there is something much bigger than any one of us—that is our belief in this country and the foundations upon which it is built and the pride which comes with our service.  

So when you thank us for our service, please think about what that really means. Teach your children our true history, the good, the bad and the ugly, so they will understand the mistakes we have made and the victories we have achieved. Please reject the idea that a new, dysfunctional dystopia is better than this highly successful experiment in democracy we call the United States of America, where people from all over the globe want to come for a better life. Please protect the rights you have been given in the land of the free because of the brave. Please stand and show respect for our service, flag and our national anthem.  We are veterans, we have always been here; please show us that our sacrifices have not been in vain.

A veteran, Douglas Sandberg lives in Port Jervis, NY and has hosted “Let’s Talk Vets” at Radio Catskill 90.5, since 2018. A shorter version of this guest editorial was first published on November 11, 2021. It is a prophetic reflection that deserves a second read.

veterans day, war, valor, explanation, awareness


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