[November 4, 2023] Why is Veterans Day so unsatisfying? I have often thought about this question since I retired from the Army. No, I will not dismiss Veterans Day as a self-congratulatory holiday. However, to answer that question is not for the faint of heart because the answer forces us to expose the underbelly of American traditions, the universal contract between a nation and its military, and the human psychology of comradery, courage, and honor.
Too often, Veterans Day is symbolized by hackneyed news articles, old men marching in parades, obligatory salutes, boring speeches, and dressing up in ill-fitting uniforms. This is not to say that those who support our veterans don’t go to great lengths to honor and accommodate our deserving veterans or dismiss our social ideals of selfless service, duty, loyalty, and bravery; for from it. This is what is great and wonderful about this important date.
We will celebrate Veterans Day in our community and nationwide one week from today. And while I am happy to do so, most folks in America do not appreciate this remarkable day’s origin and real meaning. Neither did I understand it until 1983, when I moved next door to an elderly gentleman and his wife, both over 90 years old. He was an Infantry Private in World War I and was proud to talk with me, another U.S. Army Infantryman and someone he could trust to listen. He told me tales of combat from that terrible war, and how unprepared we were for the rigors of combat and the horrors he witnessed nearly daily.
One day, he told me that his unit was being cut to pieces by machinegun fire in a major attack, later known as the Third Battle of the Aisne, in the summer of 1918. It was brutal combat, the kind you cannot see or ‘feel’ unless you’ve been there. Early in the battle, he lost his rifle (a “sin” for an Infantryman in combat). “But,” he told me, “there were thousands of rifles lying around, so I just picked one up.” The implication was clear; many of his buddies had dropped their rifles as they were killed or seriously maimed.
The happiest day of his life was November 11, 1918. Army Private Neidigh was the only Doughboy I’ve ever met and talked to about what we call today The Great War. What made this conversation so enlightening was not that he had his old helmet to show, or that he understood the tactics and strategy of war, or that he was proud of his service to America (which he was).
What stood out was that he felt a profound loss for the many friends killed right next to him. So much blood, sweat, and tears were shed that day. That he lost more than two dozen close friends – those forged in combat – and hundreds in his regiment in a matter of minutes, the shock is not like any civilian can imagine.
To know war, to ‘feel’ comradery, to know that no one in your family can understand the veteran, or that the average person walking down the street, or any politician, leader, family man or woman or child, or even someone from another military service cannot know you, that is why Veterans Day is so unsatisfying.
A simple thank you is not enough. But sometimes that is all we have to offer. To all our U.S. military veterans, thank you from all of us.
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