P.O.D.

(Originally posted on www.ssn-680.org for Veterans day 2017, and revised for www.coldwarboats.org)

Veterans Day has come and slowly fades into tomorrow.

The “thank you for your service” handshakes, prompted by an SSN-680 dolphin-ed ball cap, are ebbing, like the tide, and the offers of free meals at local restaurants will soon be yesterday's news.

Shortly, on the sidewalk and in the grocery store, I’ll be an non-distinct gray-bearded old guy in a Navy blue baseball cap, not that I really ever anticipated anything else.

Don’t get me wrong. I really do appreciate a heart-felt thank you, and I suppose the free meals are in the same class, though they seem to lack the sincerity of thanks and a hand shake and I admit I’ve never taken advantage of one. I never felt I was owed anything, even a thank you, let alone a meal, but I have taught my kids that accepting the gift honors the giver, so maybe one day I’ll let someone treat me to a nice dinner.

But here and now, as the afternoon fades into twilight, Armistice Day, 1919, and the singular honor of soldiering seem far, far, away.

Why do I feel so bemused this rainy autumn day? After all, they are celebrating me generically, if not specifically. Shouldn’t I find satisfaction in that?

Sipping an afternoon chai, spicy and sweet, I ponder that feeling. What am I missing? What did I wish it was like? Was thank you not enough? What did I want to hear?

Somewhere in the wanderings of my now-sixty-five-year-old mind, I found some clues. It wasn’t so much what I heard, rather, it was what I didn’t hear, that echoed in the thank you’s and handshakes.

I needed to hear more than a simple “thank you for your service!”, however genuine it might be. After all, I had invested a large portion of my early life away from my family and friends, not to mention holidays, birthdays, graduations, weddings, funerals, and years of living in unquestionably the greatest country on the face of the planet. Instead, I spent eight years in separation, operating complex, technically challenging, and inherently dangerous hardware I came to call home all while going in harms way experiencing things that can never be forgotten.

It isn’t that I felt I am owed anything, but because it seems the Veterans Day greeters, however sincere, don’t understand the price that we paid, and perhaps more importantly, continue to pay, for their way of life.

I needed to hear, “Thank you for your service. I hope you’re doing OK. I’ve heard that the suicide rate for veterans is substantially higher than civilians, and that currently 22 veterans a day die from suicide. I’m making mental health care for vets my mission, and will not quit until we turn this around. You need easy access to nonjudgmental mental health care that understands the unique burdens you carry. We can do nothing less than make sure you can live to enjoy what you earned for all of us.”

I needed to hear, “Thank you for your service. I hope the VA is taking good care of you. I heard that despite their strengths, the VA health system has failed some of you, and that isn’t OK. I’m actively lobbying my representatives to drive improvements in the VA medical system until it is the gold standard of single payer health care systems. You deserve nothing less, and if it can work for you, then that model can work for all of us. There has never been a time like the present to pursue this, and I will champion this until it is right.”

I needed to hear, “Thank you for your service. I heard you are working to earn your degree. Congratulations! I realize you joined the Navy during a time period when our national respect and appreciation for our military was at an all time low, and that Congress took it out on you financially. I heard that if you enlisted between 1977 and 1985 you essentially got zero meaningful financial assistance for your education in return for your service. That’s not right. I’m organizing a group to go to Washington and lobby our representatives to extend full education benefits to all veterans, regardless of their period of service.”

I needed to hear, “Thank you for your service. When I see veterans, I’m reminded that my sons and daughters, and their sons and daughters are the future of military service, and I want the politicians I elect to respect my children as they would their own. As a result, I’m voting for veterans. Military service is a must-have credential for anyone running for national political office. I want a President and a Congress that will consider the cost of military conflict in terms of young men and women, not the profits of the military industrial complex, or political positioning for the next election. Because of you, I will vote Veteran!”

There’s probably more, but for now this stands as my Veterans Day wish List. Not because I feel entitled to any of these things, but because you deserve a future made better by a citizenry that understands the cost of freedom, the value of our unique Constitution, and a way of life where you make the choices that decide what your life is about.

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