The Day After Veteran’s Day
Proud… standing straight and erect with shoulders held back and eyes focused forward with a steel and resiliency that is unquestionable. Months of practice have made sure that even a sudden noise won’t change that. Crisp uniforms, flawless creases, perfect lines and hands glued in place at their sides. Chiseled looks of determination only offset by bright eyes filled with the promise of what is to come.
They have been tested in every way and found worthy. Worthy to wear that sharp uniform. Until today, they were “Boots” or any number of diminutive terms that marked them as unproven. But not today. Today they become a soldier, a sailor, an airman, a guardsman, or marine.
The teenage slouch has been pounded out of them with every footstep during endless runs. The perpetual state of indiscipline is forever gone, burned away with every grueling test. They are mentally, physically and spiritually at a peak in their lifetime that they will never know exactly the same again. They are ready to defend you and me. They are primed to defend a nation, free a people, sacrifice for the very freedoms they cannot enjoy.
Some may be lucky enough to go home for a last visit after basic training. Their proud parents will want to show them off to the neighbors and all who will see them. The uniforms will be tested by too much food and perhaps too many drinks at the Legion down the street. Sharing stories with the old veterans. Bragging a bit about the struggles, not understanding the struggles to come. Sunday morning will be a somber event where the preacher talks about service and sacrifice. The older veterans will look at them with a mixture of envy and worry. They know what happens when the last parade is over, the last band has played. They know all too well what is coming next.
A sad farewell at the airport gate. Tears from family and that certain someone who all came to see you off. Promises to write and stay in touch every day. Promises that will not be kept. Then the doors close.
Some will fly into a world filled with boredom surrounded by the occasional moments of terror. Others will land in the middle of chaos. No amount of training or preparation prepares you for that staggering moment when reality hits you. This is the real thing. It’s no longer an exercise in “what if”. The storming sea is real, the bullets and IED’s are not exercises, the missiles coming at you are not dummies. There are no reset buttons.
The polished uniform is gone. You adapt and overcome. You survive. The flag waving seems like something from an old movie that played in your mind a hundred years ago. The high sounding principles vanish. Now it’s just about not failing your buddies. Not failing yourself. Each will face their own test, their own crucible. Some will not come home at all.
Then one day it’s over.
The lucky ones come home. They bring with them the memories that will last a lifetime. Some will bring home less. Broken bodies. Minds that forever stay in a loop with no end to the sights and sounds of what they saw. Shadows of themselves. Forever changed by the journey.
Back home. It rarely changes. People who were not there don’t know and never can know so the conversations grow shorter and less intense the farther away from the journey. For some there were parades. For most, not so much. Just pack the old uniform away and get on with your life. At some point you figure out that people who once listened were just being polite. They want to move along. They will even encourage you to do so as well.
Suppress. Drown in alcohol. Act out. More suppression. Forever changed. Escape life and check out. Alone. Anger. Fear. A range of emotions that could fill the Grand Canyon. Homeless veterans drifting from place to place.
Why can’t you just forget? Why can’t you just move on with your life?
Some never do. There is a horrible statistic that talks about twenty two veterans committing suicide every day. It is not shocking to me. They have seen and done things that normal people have never seen. Thank God almighty most people have never seen what they saw. I can only imagine the morgues overflowing with the bodies of those who would be overwhelmed.
One day a year, they become visible.
Veteran’s Day. We all say thank you. Well, for the most part anyway. I think we will live to see a day when this day is less important than National Hug Your Dog day for many people. So few have served and it’s just easier to have that one day to smooth over our collective consciences about where we sent them and had them do.
They disappear for most of the year. No longer able in many cases to stand so straight and tall, they are gently pushed from sight. The uniforms no longer cut a handsome or beautiful picture. They no longer run but often limp. The eyes are the last light of who they were. If you cared to look into them, you would still see that even though they are clouded over, they are still the same eyes. But what has gone on behind those eyes is what matters.
They saw things you will never see so you would never have to see them. They absorbed the shocks to their bodies, minds and spirits so that you need not do so. They are the reason you and millions of others enjoy freedom. Never forget who they were even as you try and understand who they are.
I call them brothers and sisters. I have fought demons of my own, even though they are much less than many others. Sometimes I still do. Not all scars are visible. I am humbled by their sacrifices. I hope you are too.
I only have one ask.
Remember them the day after Veteran’s Day. Remember that their challenges were born of a sacrifice that most can never understand.
And remember they did it for you.