3 Things Veterans Want You to Know on Veterans Day

World War II veterans render a hand salute during the parading of the colors during a wreath ceremony held aboard the USS Midway Museum. (U.S. Navy/Nolan Kahn)
World War II veterans render a hand salute during the parading of the colors during a wreath ceremony held aboard the USS Midway Museum. (Nolan Kahn/U.S. Navy photo)

We spend a lot of time hearing about what other people think we should do and say on Veterans Day. But what do veterans themselves actually want us to know?

These three tips by veterans from different branches, jobs and ranks will help us to remember what is at the heart of Veterans Day and how we can honor our veterans on Nov. 11.

1. A Day of Reflection, Not Celebration

Many people treat Veterans Day the same way they treat Memorial Day -- as a day of solemnity in remembrance of those who gave their lives for our nation. Others view the holiday similarly to Independence Day, with celebration of our nation's freedom. According to retired Chief Warrant Officer James S. Hanson, aviation safety officer, it's neither.

"I wish people understood what [Veterans Day] means. It's not a memorial, go to the graveyard day ... it's not a beer drinking party day. It's a day to commemorate why the veterans did what they did and do what they do," he said.

Another veteran, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed, saying, "[Veterans] think of Veterans Day as a day of reflection, while I see civilians celebrating."

Retired Air Force Capt. Rodney Haworth believes this difference in the way the holiday is celebrated is because "the military experience is [usually] something to which non-vets are never exposed. ... The general public has [less understanding] of how serious the situation can become."

As a military spouse, you're very familiar with the seriousness of the commitment made by service members, and reflecting on this is an important part of honoring our veterans.

Another veteran offered, "[On Veterans Day] I think about how glad I am that there are other people who also make this choice to serve and represent the nation. It's a huge commitment, and as a service member, I'm appreciative of all of the [other] men and women who have made the choice to serve."

This year when you're talking to your veterans, make a point of asking them about their time in the service. Questions such as, "What made you decide to serve?" and, "What is or was your favorite part of serving in the military?" are a few conversation starters that will let your veterans know that we are interested, listening and, most importantly, grateful.

2. A Day of Gratitude

While we all have good intentions when we offer a quick "thanks" to a service member in passing, many veterans interviewed reported being tired of the obligatory "Thank you for your service," said one retired Marine.

On the other hand, some veterans don't feel a need to be thanked at all. According to Hanson, "Most career military [members] are answering the call to defend and protect the people and country they love."

Retired Lt. Robert Yates, helicopter aircraft commander and search and rescue pilot, agrees. "This may surprise you, but I am not comfortable with, 'Thank you for your service,'" he says. "Most of us were just doing what we had to do. It was not some noble quest; it was simply doing a job expected of us."

"People have different callings in life, so I don't necessarily feel that my choice to serve in the military has made me any more or less entitled to gratitude than any other position of service," another veteran said. "I don't feel like I deserve a 'thank you' ... I signed up, did my job and went home, just like everyone else."

Recognizing that most veterans serve to fulfill an inner calling and sense of personal responsibility -- and not to seek fame and glory -- will go further than thanking them for their service ever could. Relating to your veteran over your mutual pride for and love of this nation and her people will convey your gratitude for their service in a personal and meaningful way.

3. A Day of Careful Conversation

"Veteran" is not a one-size-fits-all title. Even within the same unit, each service member will have a different experience -- some painful, some triumphant and some both. Making assumptions about a service member's experience can do more harm than good, so make sure to approach your conversations with care.

"[People] tend to think of some generic soldier figure who's off overseas fighting epic battles for their freedom, but soldiers are all unique individuals with an incredible amount of diversity who make many sacrifices on a daily basis," said one veteran.

There are many lesser-known jobs within the military that are often overlooked, despite the significant roles they play in our military's success. It's important to acknowledge the valuable contributions made by these "smaller" roles in addition to the missions making headlines.

"We tend to remember best those things that impact or traumatize us most," Yates said. "That is our nature. So when a combat veteran reflects on his time in service, the first things that will come to mind are the times when his/her personal safety was most at risk. In naval aviation, the saying is that your job is 99% boredom and 1% stark terror. I remember those moments very clearly."

While we want to convey our gratitude on Veterans Day, remember that many veterans will be reliving difficult moments from their time in service. Just like with any other interaction, be sure to "read the room" before pursuing a conversation.

For some, Veterans Day is just another federal holiday. But for many, it is a day of reflection, gratitude and conversation. This year, let's make sure to honor our veterans in the best way possible by reflecting on the significance of their service, conveying our gratitude in meaningful and personal ways, and carefully pursuing conversations that will allow them to talk about the memories they wish to recall without forcing them to relive memories they're seeking to avoid.

Happy Veterans Day.

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