By Paul Gunn
Pastor, Tusculum Hills Baptist Church, Nashville
Every veteran has a story or many stories. The reasons vary as to why some talk non-stop of their military experiences and others have very little to say.
I grew up with a dad who talked almost every day about his four-year stint in the Navy during peacetime. He talked about unique people on his ship and their travel destinations.
My friend’s dad was older and served in World War II. He never said much about it, and we didn’t ask. A few years ago, his family visited the Holocaust Museum and saw a picture of him with fellow soldiers after liberating a Nazi concentration camp. They had no idea.
My father-in-law was a career veteran. He told funny stories but was evasive about his job. After he died, I found his military record and learned he’d spent the last few years identifying enemy communications. He carried secrets to his grave.
While veterans have stories, most have internalized their experiences. Because of common background, veterans tend to share with other veterans. If you’re not a service member or veteran, and veterans try to share their stories, listen to them. If you have questions, ask them. If they don’t have much to say, respect their silence. Many stories remain untold until one’s latter years. Legacy becomes more important toward the end of life.
Every veteran served under a different set of circumstances. When I worked for chaplain recruiting, our department studied the recruiting numbers from prior years. We wondered why there were highs some years and lows other years. Eventually we learned not to use prior years as benchmarks.
We started the four-year tour with substantial resources, and it was enjoyable work. Then our nation’s leadership couldn’t agree on funding. A decimated budget brought with it sequestration, which, in turn, resulted in an overall work slowdown over which we had no control. Resource-rich became resource-zero. We were faithful, even though the circumstances changed drastically.
One veteran may have rescued children from Saddam Hussein’s child prison in Baghdad while another may have sat in a cubicle. Both served but in different circumstances.
Many times, veterans are merely victims of circumstance. I talked with an older man embarrassed about the short time he served. He was a few months into his training when someone informed him of his immediate discharge. Due to human error with his in-processing, he was never informed he had failed the entry physical.
The majority of veterans spent their military years doing non-glamorous work. A trained warrior may end up making PowerPoint slides. The movies never show those who get up every day and do the mundane. Not everyone is a hero in the classic sense of the word, but they are still heroes because they served our country.
Every veteran took an oath to defend America. The United States military reflects nearly every walk of life in America. I know of no other setting as diverse. The oath is what binds us together.
When we took the oath, we knew we might pay the ultimate price. We trained with, worked with, ate with, and shared sleeping quarters with those who took the oath. It’s the oath that provides bearing and makes teamwork effective.
Allegiance to one’s country is taught to all military personnel as the most honorable of all traits. Loyalty to one another, superiors, and the country is what it is all about.
It is the oath and strong sense of allegiance along with all the years of training and experience that make veterans so opinionated. We believe we’ve earned the right to be heard — so be patient with us, or better yet, listen. We have something to say.
Veterans appreciate your appreciation. I don’t know of any veteran walking around fishing for appreciation, but it is nice to hear, “Thank you for serving.”
One day I went to Chattanooga to lead a funeral at the National Cemetery, and I stopped at a restaurant and ordered my food.Next to me, an older man reached out his hand, blocked me from paying, and said, “ ’Nam, ’69.’ ”
People say “thank you” in different ways.
When my kids were growing up, all I had to say was, “The hat.” They knew I had spotted a veteran ball cap, and we all went to thank the veteran.
While I appreciate all veterans, I am especially mindful that the WWII and Korean veterans are leaving us. Before long, they’ll all be gone.
On this Veterans Day, say thanks.