11 November, 2006

Veterans Day

I don't have much to say today. For today I am no more grateful for those across the generations who have kept us safe than I am on any other day. Words will never be enough to express my gratitude. And the words seem to come less and less easily these days...

So, here's what I wrote last year. It still applies, for when I think of Veteran's day, I think of two strains: the history of what has been done for my country, and the veterans who grace my life today.

I was raised to respect and appreciate the sacrifices members of the American military throughout our history have made for our country, its ideals, and the individuals it comprises. But I did not have friends or close family members who were current and former military, other than my father who served mostly before I was born and died before I knew what it meant. But I read and marvelled at their heroic deads, and enjoyed the sense of peace and freedom and prosperity their service helped protect.

But all that's changed in the last year. In the last year I've gotten to know a lot of current and former military members to varying degrees. Some I only passed in a fleeting moment. For some I was merely a devoted blog reader, others a source of packages and letters when far from home. For some I have been a willing student, and others I now count among my special friends. But in knowing them and having them a part of my life, the patriotic feelings of Veterans Day suddenly become very personal.

Encounters with some of the soldiers I've known the least have stuck with me the most. One that I often come back to as a bit of a puzzle is my encounter with one of the soldiers from Gunner Palace at the local premiere of the film. I'm a 30-something white girl and he was a very young black man, but somehow we connected in an unspoken way. He was surrounded by grateful well-wishers who wanted to shake his hand. He obliged them. They crowded around him in no particular order, but he graciously took their hands and accepted their thanks. I was anxious to leave, so I merely reached through the crowd for his forearm to momentarily get his attention and then say, "Thank you." I wanted to say more, but didn't have the words to express it, so I looked him in the eye and said, "Thank you" with the greatest amount of sincerity I could express.

To my great surprise, he turned towards me and reached for me, embracing me. I believe he said, "You're welcome," or something like that. The hug lasted just a beat longer than expected, and in the moment I felt something I'd never felt before: the crash of the meeting of my world of safety and security with his world that included having fought in a war. In a split-second rush of thoughts I flashed between the things I'd just seen in the movie and the fact that I stood there in all my innocence with a life that had nothing to do with fighting and fear and violent death... because his life now forever did. These arms that held me so gently but thoroughly had felt the heat of Iraq, been covered in foreign dust, had been used to fight and guard and do what had to be done. When he had been on the other side of the world, his arms had protected me. And now they did it again in this gesture symbolic of his larger role in our country.

And that IS how I see our veterans... We live within the safety of their arms. Even in relative peacetime, their very existence and excellence are a deterrent to aggressors. And even that peacetime service involves separation, sacrifice and devotion to something much greater than self.

My veteran friends are great people whom I'm proud to know, simply because of who they are as individuals. But knowing what they have done and why they did it makes them even more special to me. For they have done what I could not do for myself... at great personal cost, sometimes to the point of psychological and physical suffering, and always with a sense that self was secondary to the greater good.

And so to me, Veterans Day is about my friends who have given of themselves for the rest of us, in big and small ways... with the result that we are forever indebted for not having had to do the same.

Veterans of America who have stood the watch, guarded the lane, supported the front lines, and faced down enemy fire: Thank you. You have a place in my heart not just on Veterans Day, but every day.