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If someone asked me ten years ago what Veterans Day meant to me, my response would have been in stark contrast to what it is today. Throughout most of my life, this yearly observance never signified more to me than a day off and sales at the mall. Since marrying a service member, my perspective has changed, and for the first time I see what should have been obvious all along: it is a day to honor the men and women who have courageously and with great personal sacrifice served in our armed forces. Unfortunately, I'm not sure all of my fellow Americans mirror that sentiment.
Blue Star Families Communication Director Stephanie Himel-Nelson writes:
In a survey recently released by Blue Star Families, 92 percent of military family respondents indicated that they felt the general public doesn't truly understand or appreciate the sacrifices made by service members and their families. Anecdotally, we know that this feeling can be particularly acute around Veterans Day and leading into the holiday season, especially for families with a deployed service member. It's wonderful to see an outpouring of support for the military and veterans, but it can also be frustrating for military families if this support becomes insincere or mere lip service.
I repeatedly experienced this frustration during my husband's deployments through conversations I shared with non-military acquaintances. These conversations typically began as benign inquiries into my husband's well-being, but then progressed into a barrage of questions that left me defending my husband and his commitment to the military. How soon can he retire? Why doesn't he just get out of the military? Doesn't it bother him that he's missing so much of his children's lives? Don't you wish he had a normal job so you can live a normal life? Not only do questions like these show a lack of appreciation for my husband's service to his country, but they also prove a lack of understanding for why service members choose to serve.
A large part of the public's lack of understanding stems from a lack of knowledge. Rachel Porto, a 23-year-old Gold Star Wife whose husband Marine Corporal Jonathan Porto was killed while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom, agrees. "My civilian friends have learned a lot about the military through me and especially through seeing what I have gone through since Jonny died. In my opinion, everyday citizens only see what the media wants to show and quite often that's not enough. As far as the fallen are concerned, we often only see a name, age, and unit. Just a list of numbers. No stories on those who have passed and the futures they were supposed to have." Sadly, most people are unaware of the sacrifices our service members and their families make until those stories go beyond generalized news headlines and become personal.
Like most service members, my husband doesn't perform his job with the intent of receiving gratitude from others, and he doesn't expect grand gestures of appreciation. In fact, I think the handful of people who thanked him for his service on Veterans Day surprised him because those words are so unexpected and rarely spoken. But these words need to be spoken. And we shouldn't wait until Veterans Day or until we hear stories like Porto's to express that appreciation.
I recall one day several years ago when I met my husband for lunch on base mere days before his first combat deployment. As we polished off our sandwiches, trying not to think about the impending departure date, a man approached us and swiped the bill from our table. "Lunch is on me," he said. "Thank you for your service." It wasn't Veterans Day, and he had no idea my husband was preparing to deploy. He wasn't in the military, and he didn't know us. This man, a total stranger, simply saw a uniformed service member and genuinely wanted to express his gratitude.
Acts like these are what I now think of when someone asks me what Veterans Day means. And I second Porto's advice: "While enjoying time with your family and friends and your time off from work, take a second, even just one, and look at that flag and say, 'Thanks.' It means a lot to those who are currently serving, to those who have served, and to all the families who are silently serving behind our men and women."
Despite grand gestures like parades and speeches, free meals at local restaurants and sales at the mall, sometimes all it takes to make a veteran's day is a simple and sincere thank you.
Freelance writer, teacher, mother of two, and military spouse
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