Veterans

I want to get this post right. It’s important to be accurate when talking about people of any status, of every status. And so I went to my trusty dictionary for the correct definition of veteran; here is what I found:

  1. an old soldier of long service
  2.  a former member of the armed forces
  3.  a person of long experience usually in some occupation or skill (as politics or the arts)

I smiled when I read the order in which these were listed, as they parallel my understanding of them through the ages of my life. When I was a  young girl, all veterans were old men, and most often in skilled nursing facilities (though they may have simply been in an ‘old man’s home.’) They were the people my older sister Kay sang for on holidays.  Once I remember going with her to be part of the audience, and we saw men in wheelchairs, beds, or folding chairs; they may not have been old, but they appeared old. They were men who fought in wars someplace else: another country, another world. It made me sad to see them, and I wondered, as a young child would wonder, whether they had any families. I was happy listening to my sister sing, but sad that so many veterans seemed too tired to enjoy her songs.  The idea that all of these men had fought elsewhere came from the buildings that we saw in the city: the VFW’s, or the Polish Veteran’s Hall. I was too young then to know that many of the refugees of those wars were my neighbors. DP’s, some were called … Displaced Persons. I didn’t know where they had been displaced from, but they, too, seemed very, very old.

It was after the Vietnam War (well, conflict … it never was declared a war, and neither was Korea) that veterans were people of a younger age – my classmates in high school for those two and a half years of public high school that I had. Few went willingly to battle, but many were drafted. The songs changed, too, and most of what we sang were protest songs, disagreeing with the battle far overseas, half way around the world in jungles and swamps full of mosquitoes, and poison gases dropped by our own planes. Agent Orange, the defoliant was called, necessary to kill of the deep green foliage of that land, necessary to expose the enemy. Later we learned what it did to our own as well. And the veteran still evoked a sense of sadness, but now mixed with a sense of anger, resentment, and sadly, disdain. Our veterans of that conflict in Vietnam were hardly welcomed home by the public who watched the horrors each evening on televised newscasts. Many turned the sets off, or turned their eyes away from the screen, with the volume lowered. There were not nearly as many commercial interruptions then, and the war seemed to go on forever, day after day, year after year, until like today’s political campaigning ads, people just didn’t want to hear any more of it. The second meaning in the dictionary includes the word ‘former.’ When the men came home from the jungle, they rarely re-upped their enlistments. This conflict involved women in the same medical capacities that the earlier wars had, and those women also came home without fanfare from Vietnam.

Each state has a Veterans’ Affairs office to help those returning from war find their way back into the American economy. Job training, educational grants and housing/medical care advice is available to each veteran. These agents are helping to rebuild the public’s awareness and respect for those who go willingly to war to fight for the American way of life. Those who are killed in the battles are honored at home with public services, monuments and remembrance. And those who come home from the wars are seen as heroes to be respected and valued. Many more are choosing to remain in the service as a career – so many that the draft is no longer necessary and all of our military branches consist of all volunteers.

And as an older adult, I do think about that broader definition of veteran, the third definition in the dictionary: a person of long experience. In that definition, I am a veteran teacher. My dad was a veteran firefighter. Many of us in the second half of the twentieth century chose a profession and were able to work our way up in the ranks of that profession, continuing to add skills as the technology of our workplaces changed; we changed along with it, widening that experience. But today’s workforce is looking at a different playing field. College is still expected as the foundation for many professional careers, but many now require more than the four year degree. Fewer offer a long ladder of growth, and those that do are where the unions still exist.  Instead, companies change hands, names, and job descriptions. Employers fire old and hire new at will, and unions are becoming a curious relic of the past, existing in fewer locations and professions. All of the workers’ rights hard fought and dearly won in the years preceding and following those great wars are slipping away into legends. The stable careers with seniority and rising wages seem to have peaked; workers today often hold multiple jobs, trying so hard to piece together a living wage from employers less affected by union advocacy and constraints. By hiring multiple part-time workers rather than fewer full-time workers the employers are less obligated to offer worker incentives such as health care and pension plans. They seem pleased rather than disappointed as their experienced workers move on to the next best opportunity rather than stay with a firm and build that long experience. While there are exceptions to this occurrence, it seems that running a company “lean and mean” has become more often the norm.

But this holiday tomorrow is to honor the military veterans, past and present, and to encourage the future. By honoring someone who has done their job well, or honoring the families who have lost members to the wars, America is building respect for those careers. There is danger involved. There is danger involved in other careers outside of the military. Firefighters and police officers face the unknown and known dangers every day. For that reason, I would advocate that they, too, be honored as veterans.  Clerks who work the midnight shift at a 24 hour convenience store alone face danger as well. Bank tellers get up and go to work in the morning not knowing if that is the day someone will come into the bank high on drugs armed with a gun. Teachers never know if this day is the one day that someone will break down under the stress of economic collapse and come into school to grab a child, or shoot someone. Many people face danger every day, and some last long enough in their careers to speak of it with honesty, and with strength. They, too, are veterans.

Please remember to stop and thank a veteran when you pass on a sidewalk. Consider offering to purchase a meal when you see a veteran in line at a fast food place.  It costs nothing to share a smile with everyone you meet ~ not all veterans look like veterans, even on Veteran’s Day. Let’s get back to the acts of random kindness, and make this world the better place we might remember, or wish for.

Veteran’s groups often set a table for one in memory of the soldier who didn’t come home from the war. My nephew Stephen’s picture is on this table; he was killed in Afghanistan in 2008 by an improvised explosive device (roadside bomb.)

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