FEATURE — Recently I was speaking with a dear friend and military veteran reflecting on Veterans Day and how to properly honor those who served.
“Just buy them a beer,” he said.
Seems simple enough. But maybe there’s more to it than that.
Our natural inclination as well-meaning citizens is to say “Thank you for your service” when commemorating the day or when encountering a military veteran. And indeed, I am grateful to those servicemen and women, many of whom chose to join a branch of the service because of their sense of patriotism and love of country.
There are many veterans, like those who served during Vietnam, who were never thanked for their service but instead came home from the increasingly unpopular conflict to name calling and even being spat upon.
But even more recent veterans have often returned from service to find themselves alienated from friends or family or suffering from mental health issues without proper support for their transition to civilian life.
“Lots of people give up on us when we’re not around,” another friend and military veteran said. “We’re so overloaded that it becomes hard to communicate, but don’t take that to mean we don’t want to hear from you. To most people, I think it feels like you become an outsider to your old friends and family when you join.”
That’s not much of a “thank you” for those who made major sacrifices for the benefit of the whole nation.
Still, both of my friends expressed a certain discomfort with being thanked for their service, deferring that gratitude instead to those military veterans who served in combat.
“The real warriors,” as one of my friends called them.
I also learned that in some veteran circles, the phrase “thank you for your service” can tend to feel flippant, derogatory even, and I have often wondered if we sometimes say it because it makes us feel good and not necessarily them.
Of course not every veteran feels the same, and I suspect the meaning of the phrase has seen a shift across the generations of veterans. Or maybe the perception of the gratitude is based on different veterans’ personal feelings of worthiness for the sentiment.
I don’t come from a military family. In my direct family line I have to look clear back to the Civil War to find someone who served.
During World War II, my maternal grandfather wanted to join the armed forces – I have no doubt he loved his country and wanted to be part of that “greatest generation” – but a heart murmur stopped him from serving.
So although I have always considered myself patriotic, it wasn’t until more recently that I gained a truly deep love and respect for our military veterans.
That’s what happens, I guess, when you sit across from grown men and women and watch as they tremble while they tell harrowing tales of near-death experiences or cry as they lament the life events they missed while they were away – or even more, hear them speak with such reverence of those who gave their lives.
On March 31, 2014, I met the first veteran who would leave an indelible mark on my life. I was a new reporter for St. George News, and my first assignment was to cover the dedication of a monument for Pearl Harbor-survivor Lee “The Flag Man” Warren.
Warren was known for handing out thousands of American flags at patriotic events throughout Washington County. My point of contact for the story was a Vietnam veteran named Bruce Solomon.
On the exterior, Solomon was big and gruff. A member of the Patriot Guard Riders, he looked every bit the part of a hardened, Harley-riding veteran, but there was more to him than that.
Solomon ran on military time and made sure everyone knew it. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt, and he dedicated his life to counseling and serving other veterans. He loved his wife more than anything.
And he immediately took me under his wings.
That big teddy bear of a man who had seen and suffered so much welcomed me with open arms into the world of veterans, often acting as a liaison to different veterans’ groups and always helping me get to the root of their stories.
One of my favorite memories with Solomon was riding behind him on the lead bike of the Freedom Ride 2014 where hundreds of veterans and supporters rode motorcycles in procession to celebrate Armed Forces Day.
Solomon died on July 29, 2019, from health complications due to his exposure to Agent Orange during his time serving in Vietnam. Though he did not die in combat, I can say without a shadow of a doubt, Solomon gave all.
From the time of my first assignment until now, I have reported on dozens of veteran events and veterans themselves, and I would like to think I have done well by the faith Solomon placed in me in allowing me into his world.
I have cried with veterans as they have visited a scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, rejoiced with them as they returned from Honor Flight trips where they were able to see monuments to their service in the nation’s capital and shared in their frustrations in town halls where they begged for better medical care.
Even more recently I have been welcomed into a circle of friends – veterans who have opened their arms to me as well as opened my eyes to the need to reduce the stigma around mental health issues both from within the military and without.
I have spoken soothing words to a total stranger – a friend of my dear friend – just to help ensure we don’t lose another veteran to suicide and shared in the fear that it is a very real possibility for many who served.
Mental health support is one very real way we can do more for our veterans than simply thank them.
I have also been privy to stories of adventure and comedy, sacrifice and heroism and have considered it one of the greatest privileges of my life to have held those stories and been trusted to share them.
So to them I say: Thank you for your friendship, thank you for your stories, and yes, thank you for your service, but there is more to it than that.
Thank you for the indelible marks you have made on my life.
And the next time I see you, I’ll buy you a beer.
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