Debt of Gratitude to our Veterans

November 11, 2009

Veteran’s Day is always a bittersweet kind of day for me. Veterans of our armed forces have a very very special place in my heart. I’m not really an emotional person but shaking a veteran’s hand can reduce me to tears in an instant, before I can even blurt out an awkward, “Thank you.”

They do what I know I cannot do. They have given up their very lives – not just those whose bodies are left overseas – but even those who return – for me and my countrymen and -women.  There’s so much about what they do and endure that I know I am entirely too much of a wimp for. Start with the physical training. Ugh! Yes, I’m old and decrepit these days, but even when more youthful – I know I would not have been able to endure the 20 mile pack marches or the hundreds of pushups. Most of all, I know I would not do well with someone screaming orders at me. I could not obey without talking back or without question. A good soldier I would not make.

I am grateful that my work and my outside of work interests often bring me in contact with veterans. I have learned and continue to learn so much from them. They make so many of our noble pie-in-the-sky American ideals real. Loyalty, honor and camaraderie are something special, manifest in very real ways in these men and women’s lives. I am always humbled when I get to work with them. I very often feel that “I’m not worthy” to even keep company with them – they are superhuman, in my book.

But I also know from my experiences in working with them that there are those who struggle. Some in obvious ways, others in more subtle ways. I often hear about how skills that served them well overseas in a combat zone (like hypervigilance and quick reactions, for example) make life really difficult for them when they come home. I see it and hear it many times.

Today, I think of the men and women who served our country with honor and distinction, who got good educations through the military by becoming electricians, mechanics, radio operators, or learning many other skilled trades.  But who this evening are spending a cold winter night on the street, under a bypass, on a grate, or on a doorstep or in an alleyway. Some people say homeless – especially homeless veterans – are to blame for their condition. But I say – look what they did for our country – and that means, what they did for me, personally, by volunteering to serve. So what have we done – as a country, or me, personally, for them? Have I helped them in any way by saying Thank you, by giving them a cup of coffee, by referring them to places that can help them by providing food or shelter – maybe even a job? Everyone’s having difficulty finding work these days – why blame the victim?

Why do so many of our returning veterans find life so difficult once they return home that they believe suicide to be their only solution? What can we – as individuals, but perhaps more importantly, as a nation – do to help them? Why must they wait months to receive appropriate counseling and aid at VA hospitals – the very institution that is supposed to help them?

Thankfully, there are organizations out there to help. And not just aid to those veterans who find themselves homeless, but all veterans who need assistance – especially in areas no warrior wants to admit to needing help in – mental health. I saw a sign once that said, “It takes the strength/courage  of a warrior to know when to admit that you need help.”

Here’s some places that I know are helping others:

Ed Tick, author of  War and the Soul, leads healing journeys and seminars. Much of his work has focused on Vietnam veterans, but has now been expanded for the current generation of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Numerous cities have programs called Stand Downs, where homeless or near-homeless veterans can receive aid and comfort in a warm friendly place with their fellow veterans. It is a tragedy that nearly 200,000 veterans are on the street – and that there are so many out there that there is an organization called the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. It’s great that such an organization exists to provide aid and support – but wouldn’t it be wonderful if it no longer had to exist?

Finally, there is an online project called which is designed to be a website for veterans and family members who are struggling to cope with the upheaval and adjustment of coming back to the United States after having been overseas. Some of the areas of tension might be unnoticeable at first – like the spouse who has remained at home and who has taken on the responsibilities normally shared by both parents of the children, and has difficulty adjusting back to having the soldier-spouse back in the household. Other areas might be more obvious – quick violent rages or quietness merging into deep depression. NotAlone is designed to help both the soldier and the family member who remained at home. They do this by providing an online forum where people can listen to interviews with others who have gone through the same experiences. It is a way for people to understand that they are NotAlone in their suffering, in their bewilderment, in their uncertainty – and even their pain. It helps people understand that there is hope and healing out there, and lets visitors to their website learn more about how others coped with and got through, and got help, in similar situations.

To all of our veterans, THANK YOU with deep gratitude for all that you do, have done, and will do. There is no way we can ever repay your sacrifice. Our nation and we as individuals owe you so very very much.

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© writingreading, 2009