The 11th day of the 11th month becomes more emotionally engaging as I age. I think that is largely because of the reflection one sees in veterans who have moved on to other productive, fulfilling things. Many guys I know are now mid-30's and mid-40's dads, with a little paunch in the middle, who dress in suits and blazers and the other trappings of modern work life. The young women I know are mostly mothers now, wearing sensible shoes and keeping their children from eating windex and crayons (yet contemplating making more despite never sleeping or eating a hot meal). Their concerns are of dance recitals, vacations, the new family car, and whether their kids are healthy and doing well in school.
Once a year, though, the old pictures emerge. Images of young men with square jaws and wide shoulders, and of women with hair in buns or cut unstylishly short, trickle onto social media. Dirt-streaked faces peer out from below CVC helmets and exhausted bodies slump against low mud walls in photos from a decade past. Seeing the good, kind, average folks you know in your daily life depicted in those other, past lives is a reminder. Those scenes speak of a collective bond forged by an experience that largely defies explanation to those who have not been part of it. That incommunicable nature is, I think, why life after the service feels so lonely for a great many people.
I find it interesting to think of my friends as moms and dads now. They're raising these little kids who will eventually think, in their teenage years (and probably for some years thereafter), that mom and dad are the two lamest, dopiest people on earth. There's no way for them to ever really understand that mom took harassing fire for weeks at a time while she and her platoon built the road to Tarin-Kowt. They can never hear the way their dad's voice sounded on the radio during a firefight—a sense of dire urgency cloaked in an other-worldly calmness that overcomes a man when he's in a real tight spot for the third time that week.
Perhaps kids are never supposed to see their folks like that. Maybe it's best that dad is dad, and that the quiet guy next door remains as anonymous as any other fella who mows his lawn and plays in a fantasy football league. My buddy's son thinks his 6'7" father is the world's most powerful man (and he might be). He likely never needs to think of dad flying through the air when a 2000-pound truck bomb blew up his patrol base. Kids should never think about mom walking into the back yard to find dad sobbing with a gun in his hands, moments from ending his life. A child doesn't need to know what horrors their mother saw other children suffer.
The weight of those things will stay with moms and dads, and with the thousands upon thousands of other veterans. That's the reality of it all, sadly. When the shit ends you come back to a world that's suddenly supposed to make sense again. The whole ordeal can seem as though you were in the throes of some months-long Rip Van Winkle dreamscape. Welcome home, weirdo. Chik-Fil-A is still closed on Sundays and your car needs tires.
One point I strive to remember at this time of year is how lucky we are that so many of this generation's veterans can become paunchy dad and ballet-flat mom. For many of our forebears, the experience of being a veteran was so empty and painful that they mounted it on their foreheads as a crown of thorns. We still see them. Vietnam Vet hats and jackets. Angry rantings on social media. Suicide and substance abuse and homelessness...the aftershocks of not coming home to a place that felt like home.
The point of all this was to say that Veterans Day is much deeper to me than Memorial Day. Marking graves and remembering the fallen is a rich and intense part of our national reckoning. Today, though, we get to remember that there are people who walk among us who've done some incredible things. He is the corporate lawyer in Miami who fought off a massive attack in the Kamdesh District. He is the businessman who, eight years ago, kept re-attacking and re-attacking and re-attacking a heavy machine gun emplacement with his scout helicopter so the engineer unit could get their wounded out of the burning vehicles. She is the nurse and mother who now delivers babies, but once ran to the pad at the combat support hospital three times an hour to pull other mothers' legless sons out of MEDEVAC helicopters and keep death at bay.
The other important aspect of this day is, for me, to remember that the American people have been so, so good to us. Politics aside, the average American has provided endless love, charity, and thanks to the young men and women who've donned the uniform. There is great danger in thinking that veterans are somehow better people or better citizens than the rest of the nation. Nothing could be further from the truth, and veterans must bear that in mind. Traveling the world and seeing its less savory spots is a stark reminder of what a fine and decent country we have, populated by millions of people who care very much about truth, justice, equality, and their fellow man. That type of citizenry is far less common than we'd like to think. We veterans are eternally lucky to have such a home to return to.
I wish you all a fine Veterans Day. If you do see a veteran, or know of one, don't hesitate to ask them about their time in uniform. A simple thanks is always appreciated, but it can be hard to know how to respond. If you have a moment, ask that person what the best part of their time in service was. The answer will probably be the people.
Have a nice Veterans Day, wherever it finds you.