It’s been 50 years since I hefted an oil-stained seabag into the trunk of a cranky old Plymouth and drove away from the front gate of the Naval Submarine Base at Groton, Connecticut, every bit as fast as the speed limit would allow. It had been five years, and it had been a trip, but it had been enough. Now I was a vet.
America is home to more than 22 million veterans. These include a rapidly dwindling number who served during World War II, the 2.5 million who’ve deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, and those who served in other conflicts ranging from Korea to the Persian Gulf. Today is our day.
We fought wars hot, cold, and in between. Individual circumstances varied greatly, of course, because at its core, military service is a lottery. Some will suffer grievously in service to their nation, but most will encounter only inconvenience. Some will perform with exquisite bravery, but most will never face such challenges—not even close.
Hero, of course, is an overused word, and it’s lost some value since 9/11. Once reserved for those who do extraordinary deeds at grave personal risk, it is now often used for anyone who has merely donned a uniform. In part, this is understandable: appreciation can be difficult to articulate, so for some, platitudes must suffice—such as the inchoate salutation, “thank you for your service.” And sincerity should never be spurned.
In fact, it amazes me that such gratitude has persisted through 15 years of a low-intensity war that occasionally demands a great deal from a select few, but virtually nothing from anybody else. Or maybe that’s why the gratitude has endured: so many owe so much to so few that a general failure to acknowledge the debt would seem churlish. Certainly America’s political class, always on the lookout for a fruitful pander, is toeing the line on pro-vet rhetoric, if not occasionally stepping over it. The growing movement to designate veterans as a protected class—that is, as affirmative-action-eligible victims—is both remarkable and appalling.
What does America owe its veterans? Recompense for actual loss, for sure, though it’s not clear that such a thing is really possible. Ask a Gold Star family. Beyond that lies the question of who owes what to whom. I would suggest that here, at least, virtue is its own reward. The opportunity to perform honorable military service to America, irrespective of condition or circumstance, is a rare privilege, an occasion to join with others in the protection and preservation of the nation Abraham Lincoln termed “the last best hope of earth.”
Service under arms confers personal honor that needs no independent ratification. That should be enough, even if those who never served can never truly understand.
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