I have a friend, a Vietnam veteran, who is proud of his service but uncomfortable when, decades after his time in the Army, he and other veterans are singled out at public events for recognition.
I’ve known this guy as a gentle and thoughtful man, quiet and content to sit quietly in a corner or stand along the wall when people gather in a room. I’ve never seen him take over a gathering with stories of his time in Vietnam. I have seen him use his experience to comfort a fellow veteran of the conflict in southeast Asia when that man lost his son. My friend simply did what his country asked of him and returned home to make life as a civilian.
In the last several years, speakers at many public gatherings have made it a practice to begin or end their remarks with a request for all of the military veterans in the audience to stand and be recognized. That’s a fine gesture, certainly one the men and women who served the country deserve. It’s also a gesture my friend struggles to accept graciously.
“I kind of wish they wouldn’t do this stuff,” he whispered to me once at an event we both attended when the speaker made the request for veterans to stand. I could see he was uncomfortable as he rose, stood for a couple of seconds and then sat back down while applause from the audience continued.
“I don’t need it,” my friend said as the program continues. “I was just out of high school. My number came up in the lottery. I just went down and enlisted, figuring ‘let’s get this going if it’s going to happen.’ I served as honorably as I could, and I came home. I’m proud of what I did, and of what all of the others who served did. At some point, though, it’s enough that we did it.”
I didn’t serve, so I can’t say I completely understand my friend’s feelings. I know he didn’t have many people asking him to stand and be recognized in the early years after he returned from Vietnam. People were kind of ignoring that war, it seemed to me. More recently — probably Sept. 11, 2001, had something to do with it — the country started appreciating its veterans a little more again. Or maybe it isn’t that we started appreciating them again. Maybe it’s just that we started to express our appreciation out loud and in public.
Veterans’ Day is just ahead. It has long been a time when we recognize our military men and women. That’s certainly fitting, although I’m not against the idea that we show our appreciation more often than once a year. Some veterans, I’m sure, find the “stand and be recognized” moments wonderful. Good for them and good for anyone who pauses to recognize what they sacrificed.
But good for my friend, too. I know he’d have been just fine with not being called into the Army. But he was, and he went. He did his stint as a soldier. I’m sure he did it as well as he could. Then he came home to be a citizen.
I have a hunch that throughout the history of our nation, most of its soldiers have been like my friend — young men and women who accepted the challenge of military service and came home to be citizens. I found this quote attributed to Gen. George Patton about soldiers and service.
“The soldier is the Army. No army is better than its soldiers. The Soldier is also a citizen. In fact, the highest obligation and privilege of citizenship is that of bearing arms for one’s country.”
My friend would consider that a rather a high-faluting way to describe what he did. It’s on the mark, though. Like many other veterans of our many armed conflicts, he will always be the soldier who served. But he’ll also always be the citizen who came home, raised a family, worked a job and contributed to the community.
You probably know someone like that in your town. No better time than now to thank them, privately or publicly.