There was a time when Veterans Day was just another day off for me. It was a welcome break from the five-day grind. I’d have a beer for the vets and appreciate some extra time to relax.
I knew that it was an important day in America, but it held little personal significance for an immature and self-absorbed young man. I had not experienced war in my lifetime as my parents and grandparents had.
War was a vague and foreign concept to a child who had grown up in a time of relative peace in the world.
My closest connection to war was my uncle Bud. I knew that he had been drafted into the Vietnam war, and in spite of the terrible fear he must have felt when his draft number was called, he had gone into harm’s way to fight for his country when called upon.
I also knew that his time in the jungles of Vietnam had affected him on a level that I could not begin to comprehend. That much did not escape me.
Still, most of what I knew of war had been gleaned from G.I. Joe cartoons and Rambo movies. I saw combat as a great adventure, and thought it a place where men go to shoot big guns and blow things up. In that respect I suppose I was not far off, but I did not understand the most vital aspect of war. I did not grasp the immense cost, the sacrifice or the scars that so many veterans of combat and their families will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
The series of events that unfolded on 9/11 and thereafter, coupled with my search for purpose in the world, assured that I would gain an understanding of the meaning of war.
I made the decision to join the U.S. Navy in October 2002 and soon found myself consumed with the war in Afghanistan. I was fascinated by the bravery of the men and women – many of whom were younger than my 21 years – who put everything on the line for something that they believed in so strongly they were willing to die for it if necessary. Their selflessness astounded me.
I wanted to surround myself with the strength, dedication and honor of those who served in the United States Armed Forces.
Eventually my career choice brought me to the war in Iraq, where time and time again I saw firsthand the great heroism and selflessness of the men that I served with.
I also saw the ugliness of war, the toll it took on all involved, and I felt the burden of that ugliness. Sometimes the weight seemed to press down like a mountain on top of me, but there was always someone to lean on, to laugh with or to cry with. The men and women I served with at war taught me the true meaning of Veterans Day.
This past Christmas Bud approached me in the driveway as I was leaving a family gathering, and handed me a small cranberry colored box. Inside was a St. Christopher medallion that he had worn during his time as a soldier in Vietnam. There were numerous nicks and dents on it, the faces were nearly worn away from the constant rub of Army fatigues, and its round shape was curiously deformed by some unknown trauma.
In his quiet way, Bud said that he had wanted to give it to me before I had left for Iraq, but did not have the chance to do so and wanted me to have it nonetheless. That St. Christopher medal has become one of my most prized possessions. To me the battered medallion symbolizes the unspoken connection between veterans, the shared knowledge of war that transcends generations and conflicts. It also represents the ability to come through such a trying experience as war beaten, yet unbroken.
Just as the St. Christopher is a reminder of the debt and gratitude that I owe to men like my uncle, and all who have fought and died for this country, Veterans Day is a time to remember the fallen, to embrace the bonds forged by war and to honor those who came home forever changed by war.
It is a day to celebrate America’s proud history of service, sacrifice and love for this country. It is a day to reflect on the incredible cost of war, and ask ourselves if the reasons for war are worth the precious lives of our sons and daughters.