Memorial Day, on Monday, honors the fallen, as opposed to Veterans Day, in November, which honors living vets. That must be complicated because some folks always point it out. Which must also be necessary since others still get it wrong.
I want to lump the two together and focus on the “honor” part. What does that mean exactly? What does honoring vets, living or dead, look like?
Fly the flag, say the pledge —that’s what I do. Post on Facebook old photos of family members who served? Lots of that. Share stories of military bravery on social media, waved under the noses of other people, almost as a rebuke. I double-dog dare you to share this!
And all of this honoring helps ... who exactly? It certainly feels good for the person doing it. Nothing wrong with that. I like flying the flag. Going through the motions of respect has gravitas and the illusion of significance.
But honor, in itself, is overrated. Honor is so easy. A solemn nod. A ginned up tear. And back to the TV or barbecue. Everyone is so happy to congregate again; I’m hosting one barbecue and attending another.
It’s also easy for the holiday’s purpose to be overlooked entirely.
This at a time when the military is more important than ever. You can argue whether the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made us safer. But I believe to the bottom of my heart that the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Mark Milley, and other career soldiers saved American democracy last fall. They never fired a shot, but they stood shoulder to shoulder and kept us from becoming a dictatorship. We don’t know the full scope yet. But we will.
In the meantime, entertain the idea that all that moist-eyed flag waving might wound the very people it is supposed to uplift.
“It upsets me when so-called Americans go and fly these flags on these various holidays, Memorial Day and Veterans Day,” said William Hooks, who served for 20 years in the Marine Corps. “They play the game, when the time to be compassionate toward veterans is when one needs bus fare. Who needs a second chance or a job.
“That’s when you show whether you are patriotic to this country or not. You don’t become a hero because you have an emblem on your car or salute the symbols of all these holidays. You do it in your unguarded moments. You do it in your attitude.”
Hooks, who is a judge on the Cook County criminal courts, also regularly presides over sessions of Veterans Court, one of Cook County’s specialty courts that emphasize support rather than punishment. He sees how easily veterans are abandoned by the country they served.
“I sort through their problems,” Hooks said. “These are crimes of desperation. They’re coming in having committed crimes of poverty, crimes of hopelessness. They may have had that gun and decided to keep the gun but didn’t do the paperwork. Some problems start in active duty. They may use narcotics. They may have alcohol problems.”
Twenty-one U.S. veterans a day kill themselves.
“I don’t think I ever knew a combat veteran who did not contemplate it,” said Hooks’ former commander, Lynn Lowder, who served behind enemy lines as a Marine special ops team leader in Vietnam. “Not ‘line me up to do it.’ But thought about it.”
Lowder knows the best way to honor fallen soldiers is to help living ones.
“We’re quick to send them into fight, but we have not figured out an effective way to reintegrate them into society,” he said, pointing at the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We said, ‘No more Vietnams.’ That was nine years. We’ve been at war almost 20.”
Lowder said all veterans face two challenges when leaving the service.
“The first thing is they figure out: ‘What’s my lane in life going to be?’” he said. “The second thing (to) figure out (is) “Who am I now?” The person who went over is not the person who comes back. And if you’ve seen combat, you’ve seen a lot. It doesn’t mean you’re damaged goods, doesn’t mean you’re broken. It means you’ve got issues other people don’t have.”
Because of this, many vets, rather than being corporate employees, do well in small business. To aid this, Lowder created the Veterans Business Project to help vets purchase small businesses. It’s a 501(c)(3) you can learn about and donate to on its website, www.veteranbusinessproject.org .
“We’re there to coach and mentor people through the process, to walk them through due diligence,” Lowder said. “If you get a job, they’re going to want you to fit into corporate culture and navigate through the pathways. Or you can create your own pathway.”
Which brings us back to why so many would rather recount Medal of Honor heroism than, oh, help a particular vet buy a dry cleaners. Helping is hard. It’s easier just to thank somebody for their service.
“You know what the veterans call that?” Lowder said. “Happy talk.”
People wonder what they should say instead of “thank you for your service.”
“Try, ‘How’s it going? Do you have a job?’” Lowder said. “If the kid says, ‘I don’t,’ maybe you could hook them up. Try to do something. It’s not that hard to do. Veterans are extremely relationship-oriented. It’s what they are. You fight alone, you’re dead. We tend to clump together. We know who we are. You can say, ‘Thanks for the courage you showed.’ But also say, ‘What’s going on?’”