Veterans Day changes for me every year. It used to be one of those days whose frequency and timing I could never quite predict, but which signaled that my friends would have the day off from school, no mail would arrive, and the public library would be closed so that if you happened to time it right and your books would have been due that day, the date stamped in them would miraculously be one day later — a bonus day.
Then one year, we took my grandpa to a nearby mansion-turned-war- museum and he pointed out the tank he had driven in the second World War, telling us for the first time about maneuvering that tank over uneven ground, it’s deafening sounds which robbed him of much of his hearing, and how cold they would get inside of it. I could barely understand him as he talked, his booming pastor’s voice and clear articulation long gone by this point in his struggle with MSA, but that day changed Veterans Day for me. One of the gentlest men I’ve ever known had been forced to face hardship and fear and to find the strength to endure.
Over the years I’ve met veterans young and old, and I’ve been struck by the diversity of their experiences and motivations. But one thing that’s been consistent is that their experiences changed them, fundamentally and irrevocably. And while it’s trite to say that our experiences change us, I’ve always been struck by the depth of that change in these people I’ve known. Some joined to serve their country, experience intense camaraderie, and be all they could be. Others joined because they didn’t see any other choice in life. Many fell somewhere in the middle. And none could have predicted the effects.
I am grateful, today, for the service of these brave people. I grieve for those who never got the chance to point out their tanks to their grandchildren. I grieve, too, for those who live broken lives that could have been whole. And I marvel at the bravery that I can’t begin to imagine – bravery to face hardship and fear, and bravery to face the possibility that even among the good experiences, this service may strip you of yourself. This is not something I could face. I’m not even sure I could handle watching someone close to me face it. So I am deeply grateful that there are those who can and do.