Veterans’ Day is certainly a day where we veterans pause and reflect on whatever time we spent in the military and in whatever capacity. What is in my thoughts and heart this year is what a humbling spiritual journey it has been. I am reminded of that by a piece of paper on my wall.
As I have previously written, I didn’t much like being a soldier and rebelled in all kinds of ways from not polishing my shoes to getting out as soon as possible. Since then, I have been humbled into seeing that perhaps my time in the military was part of God’s plan for me.
I went through an ROTC program with a bit of an attitude. As such, I was commissioned as an Infantry officer; however, the Army later decided I’d be of more use as an Army psychologist. To make that branch transfer, I owed them four years in return.
I’ve always thought God has an interesting sense of humor. It showed up early in my career in the Army. I attended Basic Officers School at Ft. Sam Houston. The first day I thought “MY bad attitude has caused nothing but problems.” so I thought I’d try a different approach. When asked for volunteers for the “”operations of the battalion”, I wrote I VOLUNTEER (the first and last time I did that in the Army!) They made me battalion commander.
My bad attitude didn’t completely disappear. One day I was to bring the battalion to a field at Camp Bullis for a training in communications. As per order, we were there at 7:30AM. The faculty showed up about 8:30 and gave a 15 minute lesson. I was then told we were dismissed. So, as I assembled the battalion, I stated we would march around the perimeter of the field. I then directed that, as we passed the faculty, we would starting whistling the Mickey Mouse Club theme. The battalion gleefully joined in and the faculty just shook their heads
In any case, we came to Ft. Bliss, I put in my 4 years, got out and moved on. I did decide to put my discharge certificate on the wall with my degree etc. “It can’t hurt” I thought. Little did I know what a role that piece of paper would play years later.
As my attitude about being a veteran softened, my work increasingly involved evaluating and treating veterans shattered emotionally and spiritually by war. I would hear stories of men and women courageously grasping at something to believe in, something to help them heal. I encountered men and women of deep faith as well as men and women who had turned away from any belief in a Higher Power. They challenged me to go even deeper into the issue of why bad things happen to good people.
I have dealt too with families who lost veterans to suicide and have learned that indeed our veterans feel apart from the rest of us and some, finding nowhere to fit in, choose to end their lives.
But back to the piece of paper on my wall. I am regularly reminded that the piece of paper somehow is helpful. Recently I sat with a young man struggling to tell me his story. He paused then saw my discharge. “Doc, you’re a veteran!” he said. As always I said “I am but I’m not a combat veteran.” He said “Doesn’t matter. You don’t know what a relief it is to be talking to another veteran” and he burst into tears.
Another veteran gifted me beautifully after seeing that paper. I told him I was a veteran but not a combat veteran. He stood up and said “Doesn’t matter. You’re a brother” and he gave me hug.
I hate war more than ever, having seen too much of what it does to the minds and spirits of men and women. I believe the existence of homeless veterans is a national scandal as is the rate of veteran suicides. Those issues can feel overwhelming, making it tempting to settle for a “Thank you for your service” and then go about our business.
So the next time you greet a veteran with a “Thank you for your service”, take a moment and ask “How are you doing?” That’s all many veterans want. Someone who is willing to listen.
When I look at that piece of paper nowadays, I am grateful and humbled. Looks like God knew what He/She was doing.