And here we arrive at yet another Veteran’s Day where emotions are complicated as I reflect back on the Veterans who have inspired me. It’s ironic that the thing that most inspired me was their humility because it also makes it hella awkward when days of recognition come around. They don’t particularly *want* the attention. In some ways they appreciate it, but mostly it’s awkward smiles and a chuckle or two before redirecting the conversation elsewhere.
I know it’s weird, especially as we have moved beyond the WWII generation and into Vietnam and the wars in the Middle East. Many of this generation didn’t plan on spending most of their young adult lives in jungles and deserts. It was more of a forced hand especially the Vietnam era with the draft. I’m kind of an odd in-between generation. My grandparents all served in WWII not Vietnam, even though most other people my age are grandchildren of the Vietnam era.
Veteran’s Day has always been celebrated or remembered as the “great victory against Evil” in my family. It didn’t really start to sink in that the next generation of Veterans never received the “victory” moment until I was speaking with my business professor, who happens to be a Vietnam era USAF Veteran. We were discussing our leadership chapter and he went through every US conflict from the Civil War until he retired explaining the nuances between leaders and managers and how things have changed over the years.
He generally always has an anecdote of some kind to share with us about his time in the military, but this one really struck me. It was a brief moment brushed off in a discussion about combat tactics. He was in college when Vietnam really started to heat up. He never intended to join the military (he was a business major) but he joined the ROTC to avoid the draft. Which lead to the next 20 something years of his life being shipped all over the country/world until he wound up in academia with three doctorates in an odd assortment of subjects.
The room (or chat window since we’re exclusively online) was stone silent after he recounted his story. I don’t think anyone had ever really heard about how so many people wound up in Vietnam first hand until that moment. My uncles served in Vietnam, but they were already enlisted before the conflict began. They wanted to serve. They wanted to follow in my grandfather’s foot steps. And you know you read about the draft and the upheaval surrounding Vietnam in history books these days, but it was the first time I’d actually heard the words: “I was a kid. I just got married. I was in college. I didn’t want to be drafted to die, so I volunteered. At least that way I had a little bit of a say in what happened to me.” Then he paused, and a single student typed: “oh” into the chat window, before Professor made some self depreciating joke and continued the class.
That’s when it really started to sink in why so many modern Veterans don’t want attention or recognition for their service. Life was kind of sideswiped away from them. They served, and they served well accomplishing many amazing things, but they don’t feel truly entitled to their accomplishments because it wasn’t really their choice. They did what they had to do, not necessarily what they wanted to, but they made the best of it. That’s exactly what my professor said. “It’s wasn’t anything what I thought I would be doing after college, but I made the best of it. I got a lot of opportunities I never would have had otherwise, met a lot of great people, saw the world. It wasn’t so bad.”
Which, personally, I think this makes them MORE inspiring as a collective generation of Veterans, but it really was eye opening to hear it first hand. It was a different perspective that I hadn’t considered before, one that isn’t often portrayed in pop culture or history books. Which isn’t surprising since the personality trait that made my professor among others so resilient despite their lives being tossed upside down is compartmentalization. No one talks about it, except in small snippets here and there that 90% of people don’t really pay attention to.
I heard you.
And even if you don’t believe you deserve it: thank you.
Have a blessed Veteran’s Day.