Engage us. We are veterans, but we're citizens first
“Thank you for your service.”
As a veteran, we commonly hear that when talking to civilians. In fact, it’s often common to hear veterans saying it to each other. For generations and, in particular since 9/11, it’s been common for vets to thank each other and, one day a year, for the country to collectively honor the service and sacrifice of its veterans.
Yet after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the thank-yous, while appreciated, start to ring hollow. It’s true that I served our country, but I made a choice to do it. I volunteered to don the uniform and go where I was instructed. Not everyone made that choice, but not everyone was required to. We take great pride in our service. With less than 1 percent of the American population having served after 9/11, we have good reason to be proud.
By all means, thank us. But then join us. Walk in a parade next to a vet. Attend a resource fair for a vet. Stop in at a local chapter and start a conversation with a vet. Talk to a military spouse about what it’s like to be ‘married to the military.’ Listen to a war story or two and and learn about our military and their personal history. My grandfather was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked and I’ve always regretted never talking to him about it - never learning his story. We have an obligation to tell our story, the good times and the bad, just as the nation has an obligation to honor our service on its behalf.
Most importantly, let’s not limit this conversation to Veterans Day. Honoring our veterans should be more than one day a year. We need to maintain a national conversation between our citizens and our veterans and ensure that we continue to remember and support our veterans, not just thank them.
Engage us. We are veterans, but we were citizens first and still are.
Derek Bennett is a former Army Captain who served two tours in Iraq. He currently works as chief of staff at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.