Friday, November 12, 2010

Veteran's Day

Someone asked me today if I was going to celebrate Veteran's Day. That seemed odd to me.

I retired almost ten years ago; January 31, 2001. It was the end of a long Naval career, during which there were incredible highs and devestating lows. It was a career that saw me partying in the bars of Perth, Australia and one which found me on an M-60 onboard a minesweeper in the Persian Gulf during Desert Storm. It was a career where, if you ask my Mom, I went in as a kid, six months out of high school, but came out a man. Whatever it was, it was what shaped me as a person. Of that I have little doubt, and I would not change a single thing that occurred during those twenty years.

To be honest, I don't think about Veteran's Day too much. People will offer me their thanks for having served, and I accept those thanks gracefully and sincerely. If I encounter another Vet, especially one who's retired, no words need be spoken. I know he knows, and vice versa.

But, and I have to be honest, as much as I don't wear my service on my sleeve, it heartens me to see people reaching out and doing things for our Vets. This wasn't always the case, of course, and our recent history holds examples of Vets who came home from overseas to nothing but scorn and derision. I'm glad that doesn't happen now. Our people in uniform deserve better, simply because they ask for nothing for doing a job most people would never willingly choose to do.

It seems to have become vogue for businesses to offer discounts to Vets and active duty personnel. If you've ever tried to live on a military paycheck, then you might have some idea of just how these simple gestures can impact a Vet. Sure, it's usually a small thing, but small things matter.

When I returned from the Persian Gulf in november of 1991, we flew in a charter from Al Dhafra to Sigonella, and on to Bangor, Maine. As the plane taxied along the runway, I looked out the window to see about a dozen people on an observation deck. They were flying their American flags and had draped yellow ribbons along the wall. The flight attendant told me that they were part of a group which montiored the military flights returning from the Gulf.

"That's nice", I thought. "Some friends got together to welcome us home."

When the plane finally pulled to the jetway, we deplaned and walked into the terminal. As we entered the terminal, we were greeted  by about 1,500 people who had come to the airport to welcome us home. There were high school kids and retirees, black and white, white collar folks and day laborers. They all put the business of their day aside to come out and welcome us home. Our money, to say the least, was no good there. We were given small gifts, Christmas tree ornaments, and more hugs and handshakes than most people will see in a year. It was humbling.

And I never forgot it.

About a month or so ago, I was in the Aviator Club in Denver International Airport. I was surfing the web and enjoying a cup of coffee while waiting for my flight to San Diego. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a guy in cammies walk in and sit down at a table. It took a few minutes, but I finally got the waitress's attention.

"I'd like to pay for whatever he's ordering" I said, intent on buying the guy a beer or a burger or whatever as my small way of saying "thank you".

The waitress replied "Well, a bunch of people have beaten you to it".

While I was a little disappointed, it also quickly dawned on me that I wasn't alone. This guy, carrying a full pack, walked into the bar; probably either coming from or going to someplace that none of us would go to on a bet, and people noticed. Not only did they notice, they appreciated him. To whoever picked up his tab, it was probably a small thing. But to that young Corporal, that small gesture meant the world.

It didn't need to be Veteran's Day. There didn't need to be a "reason" for someone to pick up the soldier's tab, beyond appreciation. I was still seated at the bar when the Corporal picked up his pack and, if he knew who picked up his tab, he sure didn't show it. He looked around the room, as if searching for someone looking at him. After what could've been 30 seconds, he walked to the door and left. In all likelihood, he walked out wishing he knew who to thank and, in all likelihood, the person who paid the soldeir's check had probably already left.

I don't know why I say all of this. Maybe it's because I served, but I don't think that's it. Maybe it's because my nephew just attained "Vet status", having finished up a five year tour in the Navy. It could be those things, but I think, just as much, it's because I honestly believe we owe a debt to those who serve. We can do what we do because they do what they do. They ask not for thanks or admiration, which is why I think they're so richly deserving of both.

So, the next time you see a soldier or a sailor in a bar, buy him a beer. Don't wait for a certain date on a calendar. The monetary cost to you will be minimal. But the effect of that gesture will be priceless...

Standing outside my trailer on the Mine Warfare Base in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, May 1991

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