Look ahead, don't just fondly remember the past
Veterans Day occupies a strange place in our national conscience. It’s a federal holiday that many people work to save up time for Thanksgiving. Its roots lie in Armistice Day in recognition of the war dead from World War I, a distant conflict important to Europe but glossed over in American history textbooks. And most frustrating to veterans, Veterans Day and Memorial Day are often mistaken for each other, and the intentioned sentiments dampened because of it.
Our current Veterans Day rituals are in need of a shake-up.
For years we’ve been treated to stadium flyovers, saccharine TV tributes and boilerplate op-eds that tell us that we need to “do more” to “help” veterans. (Exactly how is rarely identified, and the impulse to help is almost always overreaching, as if we are all wayward souls.) It’s a nostalgic holiday, but after a decade of constant conflict that has done much to shake the sentimentality from war, Veterans Day should also be a reminder to look forward instead of just fondly into the past.
Looking forward to the future acknowledges that veterans aren’t done with their contribution to the nation. If the recent appointments of Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel are any indication, even older veterans are deeply impacting the country decades after some of their most trying moments. Veterans from World War II onward are tangible history, and we have much to learn before they leave us, but each successive generation must understand one thing: Service does not stop when the uniform is packed away. Our shared principles point toward the goodwill of the many instead of the individual. We must take that concept into our next life, be it in the classroom, the boardroom or the Oval Office.
Focusing on the future also would reverse the prevalent and harmful notion that too many veterans have: that their best days are behind them. We were crucial and important and did great things in the military, the thinking goes, and it’s difficult to reacquire that essence as a civilian. It’s an insidious and counterproductive belief that erodes self-worth and the value of military experience. Even if you spend 20 years in uniform, a majority of your life will be lived in the civilian world. So make it count. Get an education. Learn new skills to complement your training. Take risks. Become something greater than the sum of your time in the military.
We fondly reflect on the Greatest Generation, but we tend to forget some of the era’s greatest contributions came after the war. That’s instructive for folks who have left the service after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, you’ve come out of the conflict, most likely stronger than before. But you have an entire lifetime to do one of two things: capitalize on those experiences, or waste them.
There is much to do before our history is written.
Alex Horton is a Georgetown University student who served in Iraq as an Army infantryman in 2006-2007. Until recently, he was a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.