Our kinship with Veterans

Veteran_and_FlagMy favorite veteran, my Dad, would have been 91 on this Veterans Day. I miss him. But he and all Veterans never really leave us because of the unmatched legacy they leave behind. In the same way, those Veterans still with us give us an example of a kind of change that we should all consider every day.

You may think I’m talking about the fight for freedom or liberty or Democracy, but I’m not. While that is a lasting legacy of American Veterans, it is only one part of what they give us. They have another legacy as well, one more subtle but just as important.

Originally called Armistice Day, Veterans Day commemorates the end of hostilities in World War I. This occurred at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. Seven months later, the Treaty of Versailles was signed with the belief that it was ending “the war to end all wars.”

We now know it wasn’t.

There are many wars yet to be fought — and not all of them are on a battlefield. There are battles against poverty, disease, neglect, lack of opportunity, prejudice, hate and misunderstanding.

Veterans provide us with a model that encourages us to stand up for what we believe, to fight for what is important, and to do so with unflinching courage and honor. Most of us are not Veterans in the sense we celebrate today, Veterans Day 2013. We do not have the credentials to rise to their level of service — often in faraway places, in distant lands, and many times under difficult and life-threatening circumstances — but we can emulate their dedication and their commitment to a cause. Whatever that cause may be.

The courage of conviction that Veterans exemplify and their labor to meet challenges and overcome obstacles is essential to any kind of battle. And in that sense, any of us could — and should — find ourselves in shoes similar to those of the American Veteran. Changing anything in the world for the better requires a level of conviction and commitment that Veterans so ably demonstrate.

And while we practice our own commitments to change, we can’t forget that in addition to setting a high bar, American Veterans have guaranteed us with a base camp of freedom from which we can roam throughout the world, where we can carry on with our own missions of change. Consider the hundreds of JMU alumni who’ve served in the Peace Corps, who have participated in Alternative Spring Breaks, who’ve founded and supported missions, who have become teachers through Teach with America, who have provided jobs through business ventures, who serve the homeless, the downtrodden and the often-forgotten.

America’s Veterans have given us the safety to pursue positive change, and they have given us a shining example of dedication and conviction. It is in the long and lasting shadow of their military service that each of us has the opportunity to Be the Change.

The other 364 days

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On Sunday much of the news centered around Veterans Day as we remembered and celebrated those men and women who serve us. It is their day to stand and be recognized, and our day to acknowledge their many sacrifices.

I think it’s a bit of a shame — not that we have a Veterans’ Day — not at all. It is a shame that we don’t honor them every day, because we enjoy the benefits of their service every day. After all, they remember us every day as they grapple with the repercussions of their experiences on our behalf. The truth is: No American Veteran who serves our nation returns home to a life unchanged.

Veterans who sustain physical injuries must confront new challenges. For those who lost arms or legs or sight, we have a visible reminder of their sacrifice. Others, however, struggle with the fallout from their service privately and often silently — battling post traumatic stress disorder or depression. All returning Veterans must rebuild their lives, reinvigorate their livelihoods and re-establish their family units after an absence of months or years.

According to a report by the Associated Press published by CBS news* in August, suicides among returning Veterans have increased sharply. It is a worrisome trend.

While we go merrily on our way for 364 days enjoying the fruits of their labors, we devote one day to honor them. I’m not proposing extra or extended Veterans Day celebrations, but I am suggesting that we be more attentive during the rest of the year.

It is easy to assume that Veterans organizations are there for them, but what about us — their friends and acquaintances? What is our duty to them? To wave flags? To hold parades? To reach out in friendship and support?

All of the above, I think — especially reaching out in friendship. Perhaps it is our duty to them.

Every morning in the obituaries of Harrisonburg’s Daily News-Record, we read that another Veteran has left us, especially Veterans of earlier wars. On Friday, it was one of our own; Dr. Crystal Theodore, longtime professor of art, had served her country as vigorously as she served her students.

I’m always struck by those little American flags the DN-R wraps with the words of an Veteran’s obituary. I often wonder how their bearers fared returning to civilian life or what challenges they had to overcome. And I wonder if they knew how thankful we all are. Institutional thanks, a day in their honor, is nice, but I always hope someone thanked them face to face.

There are many Veterans among us in the Madison community, like Justin Constantine, alumnus and Iraq war veteran; David Parker, professor of law in the College of Business and Irag War veteran; Dr. Z. S. “Dick” Dickerson, faculty emeritus and World War II veteran; David Chase, staff member in the Office of Institutional Research and career marine; and student Rick Brightwell (’13). Rick deployed with the Marine Corps to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in Nov. 2010 and served there until July 2011. He returned to JMU in August 2011 and will graduate in May from the College of Business.

Dr. Theodore, Justin, David, Dr. “D”, David and Rick are some of many — Reservists, National Guard members, Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines. Men and women who have served in our stead.

All of us relish changing lives in big and exciting ways — helping orphans, assisting storm victims, rescuing those caught in war or perpetual homelessness. We are inspired by people, like many of our Be the Changers, who help change their lives, but what about us?

Sometimes the greatest change can be wrought by the simplest kindness. Once a Veteran has served us, it becomes our duty to serve him or her. Danny Mallory (’08) and the Richmond Alumni Chapter practice that during regular visits to their local Veterans hospital, which treats those recovering from traumatic brain injuries.

If nothing more, it is our duty to honor them with kindness for 365 days of the year — to thank them, support them, befriend them.

As of today, there are 364 days until Veterans Day 2013 — 364 days to make a difference in an American Veteran’s life.

JMU’s counseling center offers returning Veterans a host of services: http://www.jmu.edu/counselingctr/Resources/veterans.html
* http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57494963/u.s-military-suicide-rate-doubles-for-july/
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