This Veterans Day, I want you to do more than just thank a veteran. As a veteran of 28 years, I challenge you to go beyond patriotic rhetoric by asking some questions.
First, ask us what we did in military service. Don’t worry, our stories aren’t just about bombs and bullets.
For instance, most of us have gone on more than a few humanitarian missions. If you ask, we’ll tell about Operation New Horizon, where we’ve built schools, clinics and playgrounds all over South America. Some of us can tell you about cleaning up New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, while others will tell you about flying into countries devastated from earthquakes or tsunamis.
Ask us what we did, and we might recollect building runways in the desert, pitching a tent in the jungle, hot-loading a plane, setting up communications links in the Australian outback and launching a satellite that gave you the cable TV you enjoy.
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Get us talking and we’ll tell you about fixing planes, loading planes, flying planes, jumping from planes, fueling planes in flight. As a chaplain, I can tell you about blessing a plane as well as the blessing of walking away from a plane crash.
This generation of service members might lose you in their technical talk, but I assure you they are proud to talk about the satellites they control, the drones they fly and the cyber warfare they engage.
After you ask them about what they did, ask them where they’ve been. They’ll likely share their version of Johnny Cash’s song, “I’ve Been Everywhere.”
They’ve filled passports doing temporary duty in places like Antigua, Ukraine and Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa. They’ve flown planes over the North Pole, landed them on the South Pole and navigated under both. And yes, they’ve even spent some time in “dark sites” that don’t exist.
They shivered with their families in Minot, N.D., and spent a few sweltering years in Fort Huachuca, Ariz. My family loved spending two years in Izmir, Turkey, while other military families enjoyed the island seclusion of Guam or the Azores. A few lucky ducks will regale you with stories of embassy duty in Paris, London or Madrid.
But if you want to go deep, ask them what it means to have served. If you listen well and they think you’re interested, they just might tell you.
But it’s just as likely they won’t be able to tell you. It’s just as likely that there will be a hitch in their voice, a mist will form in their eyes, and they’ll turn away.
Don’t get me wrong. They’re proud of the things they’ve done and they want to share them with you. But I caution you: There are some things they won’t share.
Taking an oath to obey the legal orders of those appointed over them meant that they also did the unimaginable. I know because they told their chaplain. They told me about the lives they couldn’t save and the lives they had to take. They’ve shown me their physical wounds and they’ve bared their moral wounds.
Thankfully, most of our stories run the course of everyday life; albeit a life of transfers every two or three years, endless inspections and exercises, family separations, and making ends meet on military pay.
It was a life long ago, but it was life from only yesterday. Ask us and we’ll tell you.
Norris Burkes is a part-time hospice chaplain in Sacramento. He served eight years as an active-duty Air Force chaplain and 20 years as a part-time Air National Guard chaplain. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more veteran stories at thechaplain.net.