Seventy-five years ago, my grandfather returned from serving in the Second World War. For over three years, he had served with the army as an artillery captain in Italy, pushing the Nazi army back out of the peninsula and leading to its eventual defeat and destruction. He came home, was promoted to major, married my grandmother, started a family, built a successful business, and lived a long and productive life until he died at 100 years of age three years ago.
My grandfather’s life was shaped by his experiences in the war. So many of his statements would begin with the words, “Well, when I was in the army…” It is impossible for me to think of my grandfather and not think of the word veteran.
We talk a lot in this country about our troops and our veterans. The phrases “support our troops” and “thank you for your service” are near sacrosanct phrases that no one in their right mind would contest. But are we really supporting our troops and honoring our veterans?
It is not unfair to look at the number of homeless veterans (more than 40,000), the nearly 120,000 backlogged cases at the Veterans Administration, and the number of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses, and wonder whether we are, in fact, honoring our veterans. Those who have made the sacrifice and who “more than self their country loved” deserve our very best as a nation.
What They Fought For
But today, there is another way we can honor them—by honoring what it is they served for and fought for.
Three years ago, I had the tremendous honor of being invited to give the benediction at the change of command ceremony for my high school friend Doug, who was retiring after thirty years of service in the United States Navy. Naval tradition has always been something I’ve admired and so I enjoyed greatly the ritual of the fleet officers being piped aboard and the formalities of the change of command. But that day I was struck by one thing in particular, by remarks made by the admiral who presided over the ceremony.
He spoke to the mission of the Navy and first among the list of missions—far before “protecting our shores” or “keeping the shipping lanes free of piracy”—was “defending democracy.”
All militaries defend their countries. All soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are willing to lay down their lives for one another. But at the heart of the veterans of this country is something else: a willingness to serve to defend an idea—the idea of self-government, justice, and the rule of law. This idea is baked into our military traditions. It is at the heart of what our veterans gave of their time, their service, and in some cases, their lives to defend.
Honoring Our Veterans; Honoring Our Democracy
My friend Doug, like my grandfather before him, like countless other veterans over the centuries, have given of themselves to fight against tyranny, against fascism, for democracy, for human freedom, for the rule of law.
If we would honor our veterans—truly honor them rather than use them as mascots for jingoistic or nationalistic purposes—we would take care of our veterans: ensuring that they have adequate medical care, mental health services, and housing. We would also honor their sense of civic duty, their willingness to self-sacrifice for the good of the body politic by committing to do likewise. We would follow in their example and learn from their instruction that democracy is not a spectator sport, it is not a guarantee—it requires our willingness to do our civic duty, to participate, and to shore up and defend our democratic institutions.
But if we would really honor our veterans, then we would honor what it was they fought and sacrificed for. We would throw ourselves into the struggle for democracy, justice, equality, and the rule of law with the same energy and passion. Not by storming the beaches, not as my grandfather did—with an artillery battalion—but no less committed. No less willing to engage the enemies of democracy. No less willing to self-sacrifice for the cause of justice. No less willing to commit with our “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” to the principle of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
This was the cause that so many served to defend. If we would truly honor them this Veterans Day, we would join them in this struggle, too, and would, alongside theirs, lend our full measure of devotion to that cause.