How Veteran’s Day impacts everyone

If you grew up in America’s heartland like I did, Veteran’s Day meant flags and parades. It took me a few years to figure out what the “VFW” stood for, other than a banner held by a bunch of old guys in uniform. I began to realize that Veteran’s Day, like many other patriotic holidays celebrated on the streets of small-town USA was about honor and preservation of our heritage. It was not really about war.

Veteran’s Day has a direct or indirect impact on everyone because:

  1. It reminds us to be thankful for veteran’s service
  2. It causes us to pause over the sacrifice that others have made (rather than criticize the institutions they serve under
  3. It creates a culture of respect, grace, thankfulness, and patriotism
  4. It honors men and women (and their families) who have paid a high price to fight tyranny and preserve peace, even in peacetime

Because of media, news, and history, most of us have decided that war is evil and that peace can—or should—exist without human or fiscal loss. After all, we have drones now.

Let me share how Veteran’s Day (and the other closely-related holidays like Memorial Day or Patriot’s Day) affected my growing-up years:

I’m a little girl with brown pigtails with yarn ribbons.

I’m sitting on a curb in a small Minnesotan town, waving a tiny American flag, while the high school band pipes it way toward me. Floats for local committees like the VFW and the Rotary Club pass by, with people I don’t know waving at me with exuberance from atop their paper-mache decorations.

Then the soldiers march past, in chronological order of service. This seems to be the focal point of the parade. People start cheering and waving their flags.

First, two young men come, holding a banner between them reading “Veterans of World War 1.” They are followed by the few hunched men in olive drab uniforms shuffling with their white heads high. I wonder how we won a war with so few soldiers. Then I consider that they are survivors from our little town.

These men are even older than my grandfather, who himself was drafted to serve in the Great War, without seeing combat.  And my mom’s eyes cloud with tears, and she says, “Grandpa went to war. But thank goodness, he never saw a battle.” I wave my flag respectfully in their honor.

Behind these few, many gray-headed soldiers march by, smiling and proud, veterans of World War 2.  She taps my shoulder. “Wave your flag. These men were great heroes against a terrible enemy.” She is crying because this was the war of her childhood. She remembers Hitler and FDR and rations. I wave enthusiastically while the crowd cheers. These men are fathers and grandfathers, store owners and professionals.

My mom has told me how she listened to the President’s fireside chats on the big radio in her living room when she was young, how she helped her parents plant vegetables in their Victory Garden in the back yard. She has told me how there was no sugar and no rubber for toys. She remembers V-J Day.

Then come the Korean veterans. These are regular-looking men in pleated caps and creased olive trousers, men who remember their combat experience daily but never speak of it. My mother shakes her head, while a cry catches in her throat. “Your uncle went to Korea,” she says, although I already know that. “He was just a boy. And when he came back–he was never quite the same. Korea changed him.” And I wave my flag in appreciation, slowly and reverently, while I think about my uncle with haunted eyes and incurable psoriasis from the Agent Orange. Full of silliness and avoiding seriousness. And never talking about Korea.

Next come the Vietnam vets. There are wheelchairs in this group, although the men are young. Some have partial limbs, hippy hair, and sunglasses; a few are clean-cut, like another of my uncles, marching with serious looks. We’ve seen hippies around town, but we always shy away from them because some of them shout obscenities to us or offer to give us rides home in their VW vans. They are perhaps, behind the “stranger danger” warnings we hear at school and home. Even now, my eyes glance at the pavement. I’m not sure if I should wave my flag. I didn’t know that some hippies were also soldiers, or that some Vietnam vets were not hippies.

The crowd’s clapping thins, as if this group doesn’t deserve the same praise as the former ones. I’m not sure why, but it doesn’t seem fair. My mother bites her lip in sadness. “Horrible, just horrible,” she says. “Your uncle flew choppers in Vietnam. Thank goodness he flew the dignitaries around and not the soldiers. He didn’t have to fight in the jungles.” She pauses. “It was horrible, just horrible what happened to those boys.” I wave my flag and cheer for them, my small voice almost alone in the crowd. My mother is almost weeping.

She does not speak of my father, but I know she sees him in every group and in every red-striped flag. He’s the veteran that didn’t make it back for the parade. His crisp white uniform, perfect for such an occasion as this, lies neatly folded in his Navy footlocker in our attic. His remains rest under six feet of dirt and a headstone that shows a life cut short. (Click here to read about his death during an active-duty training mission and my luck at hiking the mountains where he crashed.)

There are no Desert Storm or Persian Gulf vets. Those wars haven’t happened yet. We all believe that Vietnam will be the last war.

As a child, I learned patriotism from my mother. My mom’s patriotism was reverent and universal and empathetic. It spanned Presidents, Congresses, and wars. Strangers and friends. Monuments and battlefields and prairies and mountain ranges. It encompassed the whole of America. The good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.

Real patriotism is a love for a country’s people, for their values and their sacrifices; it recognizes heritage but doesn’t idolize it.

Patriotism is pain and priorities, not pageantry.

It’s why I’ve chosen not to hate people whose opinions, race, or religion differs from mine. It’s why I value veterans from Afghanistan, Iraq, and the everywhere else without criticizing them for services rendered. They are my representatives in a complicated world of diplomacy and terror. They deserve my honor even if I disagree with their mission—or more likely, when I don’t understand it.

What the government decides to do or not to do is irrelevant to my feelings about my country. Patriotism is simply a love for countrymen, especially the ones who have sacrificed the most. It doesn’t elevate country over God, nor does it elevate country in an effort to legalize God’s priorities. Days like Veteran’s Day remembers the past and the people who preserved it. But it also generates patriotism.

Patriotism reveals the places I am supposed to serve and the people I should protect.

I am a patriot. Are you?

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