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Letter To The Editor: Veterans Day Is For Everyone

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November 3, 2017

As a veteran, I am a huge fan of Veterans Day. It arrives at just the right time. After a long back-to-school and work season, and with the holidays still a ways off, Veterans Day provides a welcome pause amid a lively autumn. More importantly, it is the perfect time for all Americans to stop and reflect upon the service of our veterans, particularly to acknowledge the opportunities that veterans helped to secure at home. However, not everyone feels this way.

Several years ago, I stood at the water cooler discussing the upcoming federal holiday with work colleagues. One of my peers commented unabashedly, “I’ll be here [at the office]. Veterans Day is one of those [expletive] holidays.” I told my colleague that I disagreed. Were he commenting on, say, Columbus Day, I probably would have kept my mouth shut. But not Veterans Day. Veterans Day, I argued, is for everyone.

I enjoyed spending time with my grandfather, “Papa,” and his cronies on shuffleboard courts (yes, shuffleboard) when I was young. The gregarious old-timers belonged to what Tom Brokaw coined “the greatest generation,” having served, most of them, in World War II or Korea. They were not shy about story-volleying. My papa often led the way, regaling us with stories of dodging shrapnel in B-17s high above France and Germany. I was rapt with attention, savoring each old veteran’s story from Europe and the Pacific. I was a sponge that absorbed every detail and I was keenly aware, as a young teen, that their stories were precious batons, passed to me so that I might pass them on to others.

Amid the thrill of the veterans’ tales, I routinely observed a pleasant retiree named Jim become visibly withdrawn. Jim would quietly offer excuses and remove himself from the group – an unfulfilled chore perhaps, or a missed phone call. When I asked Papa about Jim, he pointed out that Jim was embarrassed because he was given a draft exemption during World War II (for reasons that I never learned). For men of Jim’s generation, the lack of war service was a scarlet letter. He was surrounded by men who were prepared to sacrifice everything when their nation had called them overseas and Jim felt the sting of remaining behind.

I later learned that Jim had worked for more than 35 years as a public high school science teacher. He had several times been named Teacher of the Year in his home city. Jim not only prepared his students exceptionally well for their college exams, but he also cared deeply for his students, quietly nominating them for scholarships when they lacked means. With several kids of his own, he never earned or saved much money on a teacher’s salary. But he enjoyed the esteem and gratitude of thousands of students – generations of pupils for whom he made learning come alive. Many of his former students were inspired to become scientists and doctors. Why, then, did Jim quietly fade away when his buddies began telling their war stories from nearly 50 years before?

The answer is simple: Jim was never told by a veteran to be proud. Much like my water-cooler colleague, he had not been reminded by the roughly 8 percent of Americans who are veterans that Veterans Day is for everyone. I wish that a veteran had taken Jim aside, thrown his or her arm over Jim’s shoulder and told him how thankful they were for his service also. And, who knows, maybe they did at some point. Regardless, that assurance was not enough to make Jim feel comfortable when hanging out with members of the “greatest generation.” It should have been.

The reassurance that America’s veterans are uniquely poised to share, especially in this extended era of an all-volunteer military, is that America’s veterans serve, largely, so that other citizens do not have to don the military uniform. America’s veterans (every one of them) sacrificed their personal liberties and freedoms while serving on active duty to allow fellow citizens to live out their lives in a manner they see fit, free from compulsion, or worse, from tyranny.

I never met a single veteran, myself included, who convincingly argued that military service should return to the draft. To the contrary, most of my fellow veterans relish that their children are free to apply their military parents’ commitment to public service in refreshing and startling new ways. I am aware of many “military brats” who became teachers, like Jim. Others were called to become faith leaders. Some have gone off to the far reaches of the globe to teach about climate change or disease. Some have developed apps that improve people’s lives. Some respond to burning buildings and crime scenes. Others, quite simply, work hard during the day so that they can race home to coach soccer and lacrosse and be present during dinner with their kids. To steal my kids’ phrase, that’s cool too!

Veterans serve in order to secure the liberties and dreams that are given indiscriminately to all Americans. Therefore, Veterans Day is for all Americans because we celebrate not only the service of the men and women who have worn their country’s uniform but also the dreams for which they so nobly worked and fought. Today’s veterans can help to remind us of this truth amid a fractious public climate. Many false referendums and litmus tests abound that attempt to define what constitutes a “real American”: Do you kneel? Do you stand? Do you pray? Do you abstain? Do you own guns? Do you detest guns? City versus country? Republican versus Democrat? First generation or seventh generation? And so on.

There is no archetype “real American.” Many Americans abhor the words and deeds of other equally described Americans. But, what uniquely defines us as American is our commitment to disagree, peaceably. America offers the freedom to disagree and voice one’s opinions, free from government reprisal or oppression.

My fellow veterans and I are not looking for people to march to the same cadence (indeed, veterans themselves are a very diverse lot). And, the truth is, while grateful for acknowledgement, veterans are not seeking non-veterans to sing their collective praises. But, as veterans, we do look to see that all Americans acknowledge that dream for which we worked so hard – that enduring ideal for which many veterans did indeed sacrifice everything: freedom. Freedom to be the same. Freedom to be different. Freedom to serve one’s country in a manner that you wish, not in a manner that is thrust upon you.

This Veterans Day, please do not hesitate to thank a veteran for his or her service. And, if you have the time, also describe for him or her your public service. I guarantee you that that the former airman, sailor, soldier or Marine (well, Marines will take exception to the word “former” – be careful!) will thank you also. That is why he or she chose to serve his or her country in hard-to-pronounce far-away places: so that others can embrace the blessings of freedom and service at home, much like Jim.

The Honorable Judge Mark W. Crooks

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