Like many veterans, I have a list of dates that are important to me. They come and go with regularity throughout the year and rarely do they coincide with designated “holidays” like Veteran’s Day. There are the normal ones, like birthdays and my anniversary, and then there are the others.
14 February: The day Teddy and Nes were killed when their huey went down.
23 March: An Nasiriyah.
22 July: The day I learned James had been killed in Afghanistan.
7 August: The day my younger brother crashed in Afghanistan.
I mark the passing of each of these events in my own way, sometimes with other guys who remember them, sometimes by myself. The point is, they are intensely personal days of remembrance to me and I sometimes chafe at the idea that I’m supposed to feel something similar when Veteran’s Day comes around.
It’s kind of cliche’ to say it, but to a veteran, every day is Veteran’s Day.
So, what good is Veteran’s Day to a veteran? Is it just a day when those who know we served go out of their way to say thanks? Maybe we are treated to a handshake or even a beer at the bar? There is no doubt the thanks our countrymen give us is heartfelt and honest, but it sometimes feels weird to receive it. I purposely don’t wear identifying clothing or other indicators that I served when I go out on Veteran’s Day–it makes me feel like I’m asking people to thank me. Maybe it’s just my hang-up, but I don’t think so.
I’d like to offer a suggestion to my fellow veterans out there. Instead of treating Veteran’s Day like just another three-day weekend, or hating it because it reminds you of dead friends, or avoiding it because it makes you feel self-conscious, here’s another idea:
Use Veteran’s Day as a day to reflect on how you’re doing. You know, since you’ve been back.
When we come back from combat we tend to race straight forward into life. What’s done is done, it’s behind us and we want to move on. There are no requirements for us to ever slow down and take stock of how we, as individuals, are doing. That’s not good.
Combat changes a person. If you’ve been through it, even peripherally, you’ve been changed. The changes may be subtle or drastic, but you’ve been changed. The changes are often unconscious and the veteran rarely recognizes them at the time. They just become that person’s “normal.”
Well, this “normal” can get pretty screwed up.
It takes a conscious decision by the veteran to detect these changes. Honest self-assessment about how you are doing in day-to-day life and relationships is the critical first step towards identifying them. If you can’t be honest with yourself then you truly are in a world of hurt.
“But nobody ever told me I’d need to do this.” Well, here’s the end of that excuse.
This Veteran’s Day, and every one in the years to come, take some time to look at yourself. Check on who you are as a person, how you’re dealing with the challenges of adjusting to life after combat, and how you are affecting those around you. You know best who you were before combat. Now look at yourself afterward and notice what’s changed. If the answers you find are not pretty, make a solemn promise to fix them. If you need it, have the fortitude to ask for help.
Then, call one of your buddies you served with. Or a hundred of them. Pick up the phone and reconnect with the people who know you best and can understand what you’re going through. Share with them your successes and failures in dealing with life after combat and see what they have to say. A little honesty goes a long way toward healing–for you and for them.
The relationships we forged in the service are among the strongest we’ll ever know. Use Veteran’s Day to maintain those relationships. They may be the single best tool we have to overcome the challenges of coming home.
And then go enjoy your day off. You earned it.