Veteran’s Day is a special day for our country and for me personally. Every November 11th, I find a quiet place where I can be alone for a few minutes to think, pray, and remember. I suspect I am not alone among veterans in needing a few moments to myself once a year to think my own thoughts and recall my own memories. Like many veterans I still find it difficult to adequately explain to people who have not served in uniform what my time in the military means to me and the impact it has had on my life. All of the baseball caps I wear carry the letters “USMC” just above the brim. People have asked me, “Why do you wear nothing but Marine Corps hats?” The best answer I can give to this question is, “If you have to ask that question, you wouldn’t understand the answer.”
The older I get the more meaningful my military service becomes to me. In fact, every Veteran’s Day as I pray for those who did not return or who returned broken in body or spirit, I thank God that I made the right decision and joined the Marine Corps at a time when service in any branch of the military was anathema to most of my peers. Joining the military today is viewed as a good thing, but that was not the case in the late 1960s and early 70s.
Part of my personal Veteran’s Day ritual is to contemplate a brief statement expressed by John Stuart Mill many years ago. Somehow Mill’s words seem to grow more powerful, more meaningful, and more relevant with each passing year:
“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing that is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”
I think the reason Mill’s words resonate with me is because when I joined the Marine Corps at the end of two years of college, several of my professors called me a “fool” as well as other things unprintable in a respectable journal. To them I became a symbol of insanity and a target of leftwing derision. I suppose it did not help that I gave back as well as I got, but my verbal combativeness only confirmed their opinion of me as a misguided war monger.
Last night I watched a moving story on the nightly news about the reception given to a company of Marines returning from Afghanistan. As the Marines deplaned and walked into the airport terminal, they were greeted by a huge crowd that had turned out to honor, welcome, and thank them. My immediate reaction was, “What a difference a few decades can make. Thank God things have changed.” I was proud of the community that welcomed these Marines home and happy for the Marines. They deserved the appreciation they received and much more.
Those of my generation who served in the military did not receive this type of welcome when they returned from overseas or, in the lingo of the time, when they came “back to the world.” I served during America’s most unpopular war. Soldiers, sailors, Marines, and Airmen of my generation returned from Viet Nam not to welcoming crowds but to rioting protesters dripping with derision, yelling epithets, and carrying signs with messages that read “baby killer,” “Nazi,” “war monger,” and worse. The animosity of the anti-war crowd during the Viet Nam era toward anyone in uniform was so vitriolic that some military personnel stopped wearing their uniforms off base. Jeering crowds would yell “shame, shame, shame” at young men in uniform. But the shame of this turbulent time rested not with those who served in the military but with—to paraphrase john Stuart Mill—those miserable creatures who scorned, derided, and harassed America’s warriors.
Things have changed in America since those turbulent days of the Viet Nam era. In most communities military personnel and veterans are treated as they should be: with dignity, respect, and appreciation. There are even former draft dodgers, anti-war activists, and underground subversives who have since recanted their former beliefs, apologized, and expressed regret for their behavior toward military personnel during the Viet Nam era. One of them is a friend of mine who tells me he dreads Veteran’s Day every year because he is embarrassed by his former life as a draft dodger and anti-war militant. What I appreciate about my friend—and one of the reasons I can accept him as a friend—is his honesty. He has looked me in the eye and admitted with great sorrow that his anti-war activism was based more on personal preservation and selfishness than a philosophical aversion to war. If this man could live his life over, he would be first in line to serve his country.
My hope for you—my fellow veterans—is that on this November 11th you are given the type of reception the company of young Marines returning from Afghanistan was recently given. You deserve it. No matter whether you earned the Medal of Honor or spent your entire tour of duty handing out boots in a supply billet, you are a hero. Why? Because when you took that step forward, raised your right hand, and swore to defend the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic you put your life on the line for your country. From the moment you took the oath, the military was free to send you wherever it wanted to do whatever was needed. Whether your oath led to combat duty or a service billet is irrelevant. What matters is that you stepped forward and signed up to serve our country. John Stuart Mill would be proud of you, and so am I. My message for veterans on November 11th is this: Because of your selfless service to our country, I admire you, I respect you, I salute you, and I thank you. No matter what else you do in life, for the rest of your life you can stand tall, look the world in the eye, and say with pride, “I served.” God bless you for your service to our country.