Memorial Day has never been an easy or comfortable prospect for me. I am the daughter of a veteran. The great-niece of a veteran, the ex-girlfriend of several veterans, the friend of both veterans and actively enlisted servicemen of different branches of the military. There are enough veterans in my life that it never occurred to me how uncommon my family is, in a country where less than o.5% of the population serves. Seeing photos of service men and women usually fills me with the awkward contradiction of immense pride, comfort, and sorrow that comes along with recognizing the sacrifice and hard work that other people have made and acknowledging that you could not act in their place.
But there's always this lingering feeling of Not Enough that I struggle with. Besides Memorial Day, I see members of the military recognized on Veterans' Day, maybe the Fourth of July. Three days out of the entire year that people think for a moment about the men and women who are serving their country in a way that very few are willing to. I am not here to debate the validity of any particular military action that has been taken by this country. I am not here to talk politics or policy or the issues that the military and the VA face internally, which are numerous and important and deserve smarter writing and a bigger audience than I can offer. I'm here to talk about the fact that it feels like the only time we remember what they do for us is when there's a veteran selling fabric poppies outside the grocery store. I wonder how many people even remember what they parades and fireworks this weekend were for.
My father, a Vietnam veteran, has taught me a gaggle of things that have served me excellently (tip really well, learn how to properly check the tire pressure and oil in your own car, don't drink cheap beer). But the one I use the least often but appears to have the biggest impact is that I should always take a moment to thank a veteran for his or her service and tell them that he says welcome home. I have stuck out my hand and recited that mantra to complete strangers on the bus, in restaurants, at conventions, walking down the street: no where is safe from my gratitude. And the most common response I get is surprise bordering on shock, followed by a brisk handshake, and thanks in return (usually to my dad). At least a third of the time the other person admits that's never happened before. And I've definitely seen tears.
I can't possibly tell you how upset this makes me. On vacation in DC a few years ago, I was checking out the (new at the time) World War II memorial by myself and spotted a couple with a man in his eighties in a wheelchair, decked out in a great hat covered in his service ribbons. They kept trying to navigate the wheelchair and the crowds and take pictures, so I stepped in and offered to take the pictures for them if that would help. They smiled the universally recognizable thankful tourist smile.When I handed the camera back, I recited my standard "thank you and my dad says welcome home" to the veteran and offered him my hand. The woman with him began to cry. Turns out he was a World War II vet, and no one in the crowds around them, on top of ignoring their need for space with the wheelchair, had recognized him as a veteran.
We can do better. As the percentage of our population serving in the military decreases with every generation, fewer and fewer people are impacted directly by military service. We haven't had a national welcome home parade for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan; the Pentagon is dragging its feet, and while one could make an argument for holding off until troops are out of Afghanistan, that's certainly not what service men and women, let alone civilians and veterans, are asking for. With no VI (Victory in Iraq) day to correlate to VE and VJ day, we haven't really as a nation turned and said "thank you, welcome home" to the troops that are returning. On top of lackluster offerings for mental health needs, politicians unwillingness to fund veterans' benefits and a delay of more than a year to see a VA doctor in some parts of the country, the fact that the country hasn't even put out a welcome mat is like a slap to the face.
Do you remember how many magnetic yellow ribbons festooned cars in the early 2000s? When people believed that the troops would be home in a few months, when supporting them was easy and convenient? Well it's not easy or convenient any more. And the only people talking about the troops coming home (let alone the ones who aren't) are the people they're coming home to.
I have a reputation with my friends of being a bit of a stickler when it comes to military protocol as portrayed in film and TV. I genuinely feel bad for my friend Rebecca who sat next to me when we all watched Captain America: First Avenger. I talked a lot. There's always some "How did you fit that many bullets in your gun?" and "Why are you wearing a hat right now, you shouldn't be?" and "Who on earth are you saluting right now and why?" and "Why isn't Peggy an ATS anti-aircraft operator?" Sometimes there's also "That is not the right kind of tank, dammit." or a not so subtle "The sun can't set over the East China Sea, folks." But with the first Captain America movie, I had a bug up my ass and got sour, because World War II isn't hard. It's one of the most well documented wars in human history. There are veterans still alive today. And when you're talking about a franchise that focuses so heavily on real history, you should at least try to respect the men and women who served by getting the basics right, even if it is a comic book movie.
I know it gets annoying. I try to keep my mouth shut, but I will not apologize for it. With even fewer people enlisting, with even fewer families joining the ranks of those who know what it is to send someone they love off to war, it's important that we can't even get the simple parts of military service right. I just can't imagine that people who don't get the way to properly salute a superior office correctly can be trusted to portray veterans' mental health and PTSD and the difficulties of returning to civilian life anywhere close to correctly.
I'll admit that it's easier for me to fixate on the way that military personnel come off on TV and in movies than to confront the very real issues facing service men and women. It's easier to get angry when I see someone with the wrong kind of uniform on.
Because when I stop thinking about the way these portrayals have lead people to believe the military "really works," I have to think about the real issues. I have to think about the fact that this year, it was a picture of a mother laying on her son's grave in Arlington that got me right in the gut; he died 7 years ago, and at 3 years younger than me, couldn't even drink yet...he wasn't even 20 years old. If I don't fixate on getting annoyed when someone on my TV screen is wearing a uniform that doesn't match his or her rank, I have to think about all of the people who are taking today to remember the members of their family that aren't with them. I have to think about the people grieving quietly in Section 60 and I have to think about the fact that the VA hospital closest to me told me that they were so understaffed and underfunded that they couldn't take a donation of books to keep on hand in a library for the veterans there. I have to remember that the only time many (if not most) people in the country think about the military at all is today and a day in November. And that's a lot harder than the annoyance of an inaccurate TV show.
Memorial Day is not meant to be easy or comfortable for me, or for any of us who haven't served. It's meant to be difficult, for us. It's meant to be a reminder of that feeling of Not Enough. Because as long as we still require days like Memorial Day to remind us of what the troops are sacrificing for us, what their families are facing after one, two, five deployments in a row, that feeling is going to linger. So next time you see a service ribbon or a patch that says veteran or some ACUs, stick out your hand and repeat after me: "Thank you very much for your service, and welcome home."
If you're interested in tracking or contributing to the efforts of veterans' organizations, I would suggest you start with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association (IAVA) and Got Your 6*. ETA thanks to KABarrick: Justice For Vets.
Image of Korea War Veterans Memorial via Northrup.org
Image of National WWII Memorial via Wikipedia
Image of yellow ribbon via the Times Union
Image of ATS women via WW2Today.com
Image of Three Servicemen Statue via molye.net
Image of Marine saluting via Tampa Tribune
*It just occurred to me that many people may not get this reference, which makes me even sadder than before. I'm going to go call my dad and drink a not-cheap beer.