Being a veteran means a lot of things to me. Sure, I get free meals and discounts now, but for me it’s not really about that. Aside from my high school sweetheart saying “yes” and the birth of my children, my 23 years in the military gave me some of the best memories of my life. As a teenager and young man I did things most others my age could have only dreamed of. I flew on helicopters, jumped out of perfectly good airplanes, fired machine guns, was responsible for millions of dollars worth of equipment, and as time went on I was responsible for the lives of others. While others my age were drinking themselves into a stupor at college, I was learning to lead others into combat, doing what was needed to keep others safe and gaining the knowledge to save a life. I don’t look down on those who decided not to join; instead I celebrate the freedom they had to choose not to do so. In fact, I fought for it.
Like many others I took an oath, signed a blank check payable to the United States of America that if cashed meant that I would give up that thing that is most precious to us all, my life. Sadly many of those I served with cashed their check, gave up that thing that is most precious to us all. Those of us left behind were changed forever, scarred, shaped, molded into people we are today. We aged long before our time, lost our childhood, grew tired, but that was the price we paid, and did so gladly.
The camaraderie I had with those I served with and the bonds I formed are the deepest I have ever known. They were more than friends, or simply co-workers, they were my warrior brothers and sisters and to this day I remain just as close to many as anyone does with members of their own family.
However, on this day, Veterans Day, as I do on many days, I remember those who chased their check. With names like Terry, Chris, or Manny; these brave men whose souls are now with God. They leave behind families; children who will never again know the warm embrace of their father, a wife who once thought her life was set, only to see it torn apart; or a parent who is forced to do the most horrible thing a parent will ever have to do, bury their child.
There are also those who came back less than they were. They are missing limbs, or part of who they were. They’ve witnessed untold horrors, death, destruction, and have been changed forever, and continue to suffer.
For many years I wondered what to do; how to honor the memory of those who had cashed the check, and those who had lost part of who they once were. For years I grieved, and wondered. Every Veterans Day I accepted the pats on back, the free meals, the thanks, but felt somewhat hollow inside. Then I came to the realization that those I had known who are gone wouldn’t want that; all the grieving. I know I sure wouldn’t. No, I would want to live, to be free, enjoy the things that they fought and died for. So it is for them that I live my life today. I enjoy every single stinking minute of it. The sunrise, the sunset, the laughter of children on a playground; even all the little annoyances, the mortgage, the bills, sick kids, work. Today I live my life for them. And for those who are still suffering, I fight. I make calls to the VA, cuss out active duty officers who don’t seem to care in order to spur them into action. I have held a grieving wife, tried to comfort an anguished parent in their time of loss, and in the end tried to help them navigate an archaic system that doesn’t seem to care in order to ensure they get the help they need.
Seven years ago, at an age when many are thinking about retirement, I decided instead to go back to college. I wanted to gain the knowledge I needed that might make a difference in the lives of my warrior brothers and sisters who are still suffering, and to also honor the friends I had lost. That academic journey continues, and it’s certainly been a rough one, but in that time, I would like to think that I have gained the knowledge that will help heal some of those wounds as it has helped me heal mine. I have counseled veterans, and their families, and would like to think that I have had some success. Thanks to that archaic VA system, I have been told I was officially deceased, denied benefits and still am not quite sure how I will pay for all this, but that doesn’t matter to me. If I can help heal even one person or family, then it will all be worth it. In this way, maybe, I am still holding onto that check.
At the end of the day none of the bad stuff matters; not the cost of the education, not our archaic VA system that lacks caring, nor the sadness I carry with me every single day. I live my life for people like Terry, Chris, and Manny, for their families, and those who are still suffering. So thanks for the free meals, the pats on the back, the thanks; it really does mean a lot. But it’s not for me, it’s for them. That’s who I live my life for, and will until the day God calls me home.
As for today, and in fact every day, if you see a veteran, thank them. Open the door for them, buy them a meal, carry the groceries to the car. But please remember that it isn’t just for them, it’s for the thousands of others who cashed their check, for those who still suffer, and for the families who struggle every day.
And for those veterans who are suffering, know you are not alone, there is help, there is hope, there is healing. We are all in this together my warrior brothers and sisters, and always will be.
Sure, I’ll enjoy a free meal, smile at the thanks, be grateful for the freebies. But don’t be too alarmed if I shed a tear for those whose life I know live. I love my freedom, and will always be grateful to those who fought beside me. I will live my life in the best possible way I can; doing good, being honorable and trying to help others however I can. Those who cashed that check would have wanted it that way, and so would I.