I am celebrating my 12th Veteran’s Day as a veteran of the United States Coast Guard. Every year, I spend some time correcting people on the difference between Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day but the sentiment is usually the same. A phrase that every veteran has heard hundreds of times, “Thank you for your service.” Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for those words but like many things in American life, they have become trivial, part of the custom and ritual. I have started countering those statements of thanks with a simple question, how are you in service of the community, state, or country?
Before I get to the point of this posting, I want to offer my sincere Happy Veteran’s Day to my all of my shipmates and fellow veteran from each branch of America’s Armed Forces. With that being said, I believe that we should be celebrating America’s Veterans each and every day. According to data from the US Department of Veteran Affairs, about 7.3% of all Americans have served at some point in their lifetime. At any given moment less than 1% of Americans are serving in an active capacity and that includes reserve and guard components. Smaller and smaller portions of Americans are bearing the brunt of America’s military engagement around the world.
Americans are still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. In light of recent events, American’s are starting to wonder what we are doing in Niger and other hotbeds of activity. 28,000 US service members stand between the North and South Korea. America’s beloved USNS Comfort is moored up in Puerto Rico, serving our fellow Americans in the aftermath of destructive hurricanes. The point is American services members are working hard every single day and sometimes we need more than a ritualistic “thank you for your service.”
American Veterans are often used as a political football. People cling to veterans and troops and use us as political weapons for political gains. I don’t know how many times I have heard someone say, we need to stand for the troops as they are literally stepping over a homeless veteran. I don’t know how many times I have seen people embrace the troops in rhetoric but are also unwilling to provide accommodation when we come home from war, looking for employment and reengagement into American society. I don’t know how many times I have seen politicians and their supporters praise the troops and actively work to reduce our access to healthcare and other benefits. On more than one occasion the American people have ignored a President who has openly attacked Gold Star Families. On more than one occasion the American people have ignored a President who doesn’t seem genuinely interested in where troops are deployed and the operations they are engaged. On more than one occasion the American people have ignored a President when he boastfully suggested that he knows more than the Generals do.
How many times will we allow our elected leaders to use veterans when it is convenient? The President has suggested that America should leave soldiers behind on the battlefield, even if the circumstances of their capture are murky. The President has attempted to kick out transgender Service members because it provides political red meat for his base of supporters. It doesn’t matter that some of these transgender service members are highly trained and highly skilled individuals with mission-ready competencies. We must do better. Instead of thanking me for my service do the hard work of citizenship. Engage in local, state, and national politics. Learn about the good work that veteran’s organizations are doing every single day. Instead of perpetuating attacks against gold star families, defend them with an intensity of a grateful nation.
I ask that instead of thanking me for my service engage in the work of citizenship. It is a shame that more people know the names of the Kardashian family over who represents them at every level of government. Instead of thanking me for my service, go to your local city council meeting or school board meeting. Take time to write your legislators, tell them to support veteran reentry programs and veteran health programs and other programs that support the families of veterans. Take time to learn exactly what Congress and the President are doing with respect to America’s warfighting. In the next few years, we will have service members who will be heading to America’s post 9/11 war fronts who were born after 9/11/2001. Does that make sense? Instead of thanking me for my service, head down to your local VA and volunteer with the vets who may not have family or friends visiting them regularly. Instead of thanking me for my service, demand that our elected leaders pay more attention to the nearly 22 veterans who commit suicide each day.
The sentiment for thanking a service member or veteran for their service is nice and appreciated but I think most of us would like our fellow Americans to engage in the hard work of citizenship. Don’t let the phrase I thank you for your service become a static ritual we engage in to prove patriotism. Don’t thank a veteran if you have not engaged in the hard work of citizenship by voting, showing up when it matters, engaging in tough policy decisions, and advocating for dignity and respect when veterans return home or complete their service. I don’t need you to thank me for my service. I need you to show up, engage, ask tough questions, support our families when we are gone, make sure we get help when we return, and when we give the ultimate sacrifice, mourn with our families and make sure our sacrifice was worth it.