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My "thank you" to Veterans is Both an Apology and a Thank You.

Does this type of post honor veterans
or criticize "this country" for not honoring them enough?
Is that the same thing?
Today is Veteran's Day, so prepare yourself for a social media overload of flags, pictures of statues, and quotes intended to be inspiring about the sacrifice of veterans like the one on the right.  We celebrate our Veterans for their courage, their bravery and for their sacrifice, as well we should. But is it enough?

Some people will lament the fact that the celebration is only one day, or that it doesn't change the way we honor the veterans, or fail to, on other days.  The government agency tasked with helping Veterans is plagued with scandals, and the NFL has to be paid to honor the veterans.  So it's no wonder that we've gotten cynical about how much a few "thank you" messages matter.   Is it enough to say "thank you" if we don't really try to understand what the sacrifice of a veteran is?

You've probably heard someone say before that it's not what you say but how you say it.  A flat, uninterested "thank you" from someone who doesn't really care feels patronizing, because it is.  So how can you say "thank you" and mean it?  To do that you have to understand why you are saying "thank you."  Are you thankful that a veteran was willing to die for their country or for your safety; are you thankful because their voluntary service meant that you didn't have to serve; are you thankful because you've lost someone and you feel that you understand better the sacrifice others have made; or are you thankful for some other reason that's personal to you and not easily summarized by an internet quote?

Why you are thankful matters because it will and it should affect how you say "thank you."   My reason for being thankful for the service of many of my friends is at least partially tied to the fact that I did not serve, and was not required to serve.  I grew up in a very safe environment and, like many Americans, do not worry about my survival on a daily basis.  This has shaped who I am and it is a comfort that we all want to provide to our children.  It's easy to see the physical safety that a strong military provides for us, but what's less obvious is the mental and emotional safety that a voluntary military provides to its non-military citizens.

Serving in the military and risking one's life requires accepting training on how to be prepared to kill another human being and to sacrifice human life when necessary.  Military advertising glosses over that fact, but it is a necessary component of military training and sometimes of military service.  Post-traumatic stress and other invisible wounds that veterans suffer from can mostly be traced back to the existential absurdity of facing death while fighting for a better life.  We teach our children that all life is sacred and that being "good" is about living up to that ideal.  Then we teach our warriors that our life and our way of life is more sacred than other life, and we expect it to have no effect.  But it does have an effect, and that is not something to be ignored, but something to be mourned and honored.

There are people in this world that want to hurt us because we are different than they are, and the existence and necessity of the military is an ongoing acknowledgement that staying free requires that we protect ourselves from those other people.  We accept that collateral damage in that protection is inevitable.  We should continue to try to minimize that collateral damage, but we should also remember that no matter how many statues we erect and fancy commercials we make, being a veteran means sacrificing something no person should have to sacrifice.  It means accepting a loss of their innocence so the rest of us may remain innocent.  In some ways that is more of a sacrifice than risking one's life, and yet most of our "tributes" only acknowledge those who died while those who survive continue to sacrifice.

You've probably heard the saying "freedom isn't free," meant to honor the fact that our veterans give up some of their freedoms to help protect ours.  But freedom isn't an endpoint either.  Simply having freedom means nothing if we do nothing with it.  Freedom from tyranny grants us room to grow and be better people, and it gives us the room to connect to each other.  Empathy is not possible when we're in survival mode, but empathy is the greatest gift we can give to our fellow humans beings and ourselves.  Just as fear leads to hate and anger and suffering, empathy leads to understanding, connection and happiness.

For me, my "thank you" to veterans is both an apology and a "thank you."  I appreciate your service and your sacrifices, both visible and invisible.  And I am sorry that the world is still a place where your service is necessary.  I am sorry for any part I play in creating more conflict rather than reducing it and every day I will try to remember that a viable space for empathy to grow is the true gift we receive from our veterans.  For that, I say Thank You.


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