In recent years, a number of us have gotten together to observe Veterans Day in a new but very appropriate way: We’ve honored service with service. Joining with communities and organizations around the country, my colleagues from Blue Star Families have tackled projects ranging from the environment and children to homelessness and hunger, and of course, the quality of life for our nation’s veterans and military families. Coordinated by our friends at Mission: Serve, these projects give a special meaning to Veterans Day, making clear the ongoing need for service – both around the word and here at home.
Last week in Hampton Roads, VA, Blue Star Families focused on service, and showcased camaraderie and connectedness. We decided to make care packages for families with deployed service members. As military spouses ourselves, we understand the impact such a small gesture can have on a military family facing (or in the middle of) a long separation. We also integrated our program “Operation: Appreciation” into the day’s events, and had tables set up for volunteers to write encouraging and supportive notes to military families.
One of the items included in the care package was a handbook and video for the family and friends of those serving in our military to help them prepare for the emotional challenges before, during and after deployment (produced by Vulcan Productions as part of its This Emotional Life campaign). The Defense Centers of Excellence – founded three years ago to support warriors and their families needing help with psychological health and traumatic brain injury issues – generously provided this resource to us. They will be distributing almost 200,000 copies to loved ones around the country. If we can, as military families, understand what to expect during the deployment cycle, we can better build the skills to deal with the varying emotions we experience.
In many ways, the whole day seemed an interesting synthesis of several larger streams of thought – November is a very significant month in the military community. For starters, Veterans Day observances are sacred rites of homage for our veterans. We modern day military families look forward to these times when we can express respect and gratitude towards those who went before us. We know only too well the price that previous generations have paid in order to serve.
Additionally, for the last two years, the Obama Administration has proclaimed the month to be Military Family Appreciation Month. The attention paid to military families by this administration has, in many tangible ways, helped to bridge the gap that has seemed to develop over the last 10 years of war between our civilian and military communities. The same gap that Mission: Serve is aimed at diminishing. And, then of course, November is home to the holiday of Thanksgiving, which may not seem an intuitive match up to the previous two I mentioned, but at least for my military family, it seems to unite the seemingly distinct values of thankfulness, family togetherness, service, national pride, responsibility as an engaged citizen, altruism, and even civic literacy. Put simply, the significance of the entire month promotes the alignment of all these community oriented values into beautiful displays of citizenship and volunteerism that allows us all to feel connected to each other, something sociologists agree that we all need in order to thrive.
Like many other military spouses, this year I’m only too thankful that my husband will be home with us for the holidays. Last year at this time, we were smack in the middle of my husband’s year-long deployment in Iraq. The year before that, he was in Japan. So I know that small gestures of support are priceless. They are, in fact, the stepping stones that help us over the rough patches. I am thankful for my neighbors inviting us over for dinner and my male family members offering to take the boys out for some ball, for my fellow military spouses stepping in spending time with us, my sons’ teachers taking extra care to ask them about their dad, or even just my friends following along our journey through my Facebook updates.
We intended for the items in the care packages to encourage family togetherness and included products which would make for a fun family night, a chance to enjoy each other’s company even while missing a loved one. And while it may seem a small gesture to give a military family a bag of goodies in the midst of a deployment, these small gestures are meaningful, tangible expressions of support for our military families and are well received by thankful hearts.
While the event was supposed to run a full two and a half hours, because of the large volume of volunteers, we had over 400 bags packed in about an hour. There were students, service members, military spouses and family members, veterans, volunteers from the community and the sponsoring organizations, and even Virginia Senator Mark Warner on hand writing letters and packing bags. There was music in the background and a general feeling of goodwill in the air. And while that may sound cliché or even gimmicky, many volunteers, both military and civilian, came up to me to ask when we were going to have another event like this one.
The desire for service, the drive to connect with others and create shared meaning of our experiences, is obviously there. We just need to keep creating outlets for it. We also need to celebrate and encourage it.
And, perhaps not just on Veterans Day.
Vivian Greentree is the Director of Research and Policy for Blue Star Families. She is pursuing her Ph.D. in public administration at Old Dominion University. She is a proud military spouse and mother of two future pilots.