Even though I didn’t have to be at work today, and despite having staying up way too late the night before catching up on episodes of @midnight, I found myself laying in bed at 8am and unable to get back to sleep. I’d intended to take devote the entire day to diving headfirst into Fallout 4, but a shipping delay with a certain mail carrier who shall remain nameless (when mispronounced, it rhymes with “cups”) meant that my copy wouldn’t be arriving until later in the day. Thus, in a rare confluence of inspiration and the free time immediately available to actually act on it, I found myself thinking of the reason why I had the day off work in the first place.
Veteran’s Day. Right up there with Memorial Day, it’s without a doubt one of the most meaningful holidays we have as a people. Observed similarly in other parts of the world as Armistice Day, it was originally meant to coincide with the end of World War I, when the Armistice with Germany went into effect. President Woodrow Wilson first proclaimed the occasion with the following: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.” In 1945, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill expanding Armistice Day into a day to remember all veterans, and Congress passed it less than a week later.
I’ve always had the utmost respect for the men and women who serve in the military. Regardless of your thoughts on politics, politicians, the wars we fight, or the current state of the world (and there’s a lot to think and talk about), it can’t be denied that the people serving in the armed forces have the most difficult job of all. Some do it because they’re in a bad position in life and don’t see another option available to them. Some do it because they know that in putting in their time they’ll be given training, a GI bill, and a lifetime’s worth of unforgettable experiences. Yet others do it because they simply have pride for their country and want to dedicate their lives to defending it.
But whatever their motivation, they’ve volunteered to put their lives, friendships, families, and educations on hold to be a part of something greater than themselves. We break them down, only to build them back up into the men and women we want them to be. We train them, instill them with discipline, arm them, and send them to far off places to do jobs they have no say in. They’re asked to do things by people in power they’ve never met, and sometimes don’t agree with, but they do it anyway because they respect their superiors and have a job to do. They endure years away from those they love, everything they’ve known, and are expected to do unpleasant and impossible things, in many cases literally putting their lives on the line in the name of an ideal. For the hope that their efforts will help a cause.
But it’s not without reward. Military service is hugely beneficial for the majority of those who choose to enlist. I’ve heard stories of teenagers of broken, abuse-filled homes going on to become incredible people who accomplish things they never dreamed themselves capable of. The skills, experiences, friends, and travels they gain are unlike any other. As much of a sacrifice as it is, I’m in awe at the places they visit and the camaraderie they develop.
I find that there’s a few ways I like to pay some attention to those who inspire me like this. Some are better than others. Of course, there’s video games, plenty of which attempt to recreate warlike atmosphere. Call of Duty, with its Michael Bay approach of beating you over the head with explosions, weighty death scenes, and an endless supply of terrorists to shoot in the face. Medal of Honor Frontline was always a favorite of mine from the PS2 era, with possibly the most thrilling recreation of the storming of the beaches of Normandy ever put in a game, as well as one of the most beautiful, moving orchestral scores I’ve heard from a World War II-based shooter.
Movies are even better than games, if less interactive. The obvious choice here is Saving Private Ryan, but there are many others. Most people have a fondness for Das Boot, but I’ve always preferred U-571. In terms of a small band of US soldiers facing enormous adversity and coming out the other side, it was hugely impactful for me, filled with tension like I’d never experienced before and characters I grew to genuinely care for. Rules of Engagement is also one I’ll always recommend for those who like a good courtroom drama. Or you may want to check out PBS’s documentary style TV series Carrier, which follows a six-month deployment of one of the US’s largest nuclear aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz.
But even though media will never stop giving it their best shot, the best way to pay respect is to simply talk to an actual vet. Thank them for their service. Let them know it’s not lost on you that a large part of why we live in a country with as many freedoms as we have and have the ability to try and make the world a better place is because of their efforts. If you don’t know any veterans yourself, there are tons of websites that will put you in touch with them. One of my favorites is amillionthanks.org. In addition to taking donations for America’s troops and families of servicemen and women, one of the services they provide is collecting letters of thanks to be delivered to military local, abroad, or injured in hospitals. It’s one of the quickest and easiest ways to show your support.
Lastly, if you’re having the trouble finding enthusiasm, I highly recommend checking out the Congressional Medal of Honor Society website. The highest honor this country can bestow, awarded for gallantry and bravery in combat at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty, is not given lightly. Reading the stories of those who’ve earned it is a revelation and a sobering reminder of the situations veterans are sometimes placed in, as well as the selflessness the best of the best are capable of.
Just looking at the current featured recipient, Sergeant William Shemin, I found this:
…in connection with combat operations against an armed enemy on the Vesle River, near Bazoches, France from August 7 to August 9, 1918. Sergeant Shemin, upon three different occasions, left cover and crossed an open space of 150 yards, repeatedly exposing himself to heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, to rescue wounded. After officers and senior noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Sergeant Shemin took command of the platoon and displayed great initiative under fire until wounded on August 9.
Or this, from the page of Specialist Fourth Class Donald P. Sloat, who was in the US Army during Vietnam:
On the morning of Jan. 17, 1970, Sloat’s squad was conducting a patrol, serving as a blocking element in support of tanks and armored personnel carriers from F Troop in the Que Son valley. As the squad moved through dense up a small hill in file formation, the lead Soldier tripped a wire attached to a hand grenade booby-trap, set up by enemy forces. When the grenade rolled down the hill toward Sloat, he had a choice. He could hit the ground and seek cover, or pick up the grenade and throw it away from his fellow Soldiers. After initially attempting to throw the grenade, Sloat realized that detonation was imminent, and that two or three men near him would be killed or seriously injured if he couldn’t shield them from the blast. In an instant, Sloat chose to draw the grenade to his body, shielding his squad members from the blast, and saving their lives. Sloat’s actions define the ultimate sacrifice of laying down his own life in order to save the lives of his comrades.
This was only two weeks before his 21st birthday.
To see a veteran of military service, especially in uniform, fills me with a pride and admiration in a way few things can. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been in the trenches with bullets blazing around them, sat in a dark control room reading maps on a computer screen, or cooked in the kitchens of an offshore aircraft carrier, they’ve seen and done more than I ever will. They’ve experienced the greatness and diversity this world and its cultures have to offer, as well as worst, most senseless and hateful acts it’s capable of. Their contributions to their country, our allies, and their fellow comrades dwarfs most of ours, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Given my medical history and the weak physical stature it left me with, there was never a chance I’d ever be deemed fit for military duty. Had my life turned out differently, I honestly don’t know if I would have it in me to walk into a recruitment office and enlist, let alone shoot a random enemy or take a bullet to save a comrade. I’d like to think that I’m emotionally and mentally well balanced enough to handle it, and certainly have pride for my country and am not afraid to work hard for my friends and what I believe in. But it’s one of those things that’s impossible to truly know without actually being in the moment. And it could be argued that I’m the person I am today because of my background. If my background had been different, It’s certainly possible that I wouldn’t have the courage for it. I suppose I’ll never know for sure.
So instead, I’d like to ask that we take just a little time today to be thankful for those who don’t get days off like most of us. Those who spend birthdays, Christmases, and anniversaries in a bunker halfway around the world in the midst of people who would sooner shoot at them than ask them for help. Those who see their newborn children for the first time over a Skype call that could go out at any second because they’re connecting to the internet from the middle of an ocean thousands of miles away. And those who wake up day in and day out trying not to think about the possibility that this day could be their last.
To those currently serving, to those who’ve served in the past, and to those service members no longer with us, I say thank you. Thank you for your selflessness, sacrifice, strength, and heroism.