Friday, November 11, 2011

A Veterans Day for Me to Remember...

For years now, basically since 9/11, I've gone out of my way to honor the men and women who serve in our armed forces.  It's become second nature for me, most especially when I'm traveling.  Just this past week, for instance, I connected through Charlotte, North Carolina – and while in the airport I struck up a conversation with a young man in Army uniform.  Turns out he was headed to a school, and then back to the Middle East.  I invited him to join me for a Starbucks coffee and a little food, and found a good opportunity to say “thanks” in a heartfelt way.

One of the reasons I do this is my own experiences while in the Navy in the '70s; I've blogged about these before.  Suffice it to say that while I was in uniform, I never had the experience of a friendly stranger buying me coffee and saying “thanks” in a way I'd believe sincere.  Quite the opposite.  But I've often wished I'd had that experience.

I'm no longer in uniform; I've been out of the Navy for more than 30 years.  But today – for the first time ever – I had an experience something close to this.  A colleague of mine (whose name I don't have permission to use, and therefore won't) sent an email to myself and another mutual colleague, whom I'll call “J.” (since I don't have permission to use his name, either).  With minor edits to maintain anonymity, here's the email:

J. and Tom,

Just a moment to say thanks to the only two Vietnam War vets that I really know (I think).

We are living at a time of war, the first one that I have first hand witness to in a way that I can understand. I see how the vets are revered and how their work and service is honored. I see the concern and care for the invisible wounds warriors come home with.

My memories of the Vietnam War are vague, I was young. What I know, though, is that what I see now is very different than what I remember seeing, however vaguely, back then. The people that cheered for soldiers; the people that welcomed them home; the people that cared about the invisible wounds were very few and far between and didn't have anywhere near the voice that people that opposed the war did.

But they were there. And my dad was (is) one of them. I learned from him the importance of the work of all who served and the depth of their sacrifices. I learned from him to cheer loudly when vets passed by on Veterans Day. I learned from him to look for and reach out to those who served. I learned from him to have respect.

As time has passed, our country has come to rethink and regret the collective attitude towards Vietnam Vets, though I am afraid for many vets, this was too little too late. But I do believe that it is the lessons learned in that attempt to reconcile that has given way to much of the honor our current warriors are extended. And for that, we all owe Vietnam Vets a certain and very sincere debt of gratitude.

If my dad had met either of you back then, he would have shook your hand. He would have cheered loudly as you passed by. He would have honored your service. He would have offered you a cup of coffee. He wasn't with you then, but I am here now. And in honor of today as Veteran's day, in honor of the lessons learned from my dad, and in honor of your service to your country - I would very much like to buy you a cup of coffee!

Some things can't be undone. Some things can't be forgotten. But it's my sincerest hope that it is never too late to say thank you.

Thank you so much, for your service. And thank you for what your collective experiences have brought to my life and my career all these years later.
To say I was stunned would be a significant understatement.  All these years later, someone said “thanks!” to me.  It's some hours later as I write this, and I'm still shaken by the experience.  I guess I never expected anyone to just say “thanks” to me...

Just to be clear: I'm a Vietnam-era vet; I wasn't actually in-country in Nam.  Nor was I directly in combat.  I was a sailor on a ship that supported combat air operations in Nam.  I fixed computers (the mainframes of the day).  I was a warrior only in some metaphorical sense.  But I was a member of our armed forces, and served for six years.  And now someone has said “Thanks, Tom”...

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