I’ve always been more than a little uneasy on Veterans Day. I’ve worn a uniform most of my life and in the last decade – for obvious reasons – the number of times I hear “thank you for your service” has gone way up. But there is a wide range of service out there. Recently, I was reminded of just how much difference there is between us “Vets.”
Last week I was standing in front 100 marine officers, all of whom had recently returned from combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of them had scars (one kind or another) from their service. The glaring difference between their military experience and mine – actual combat – to one side, I couldn’t help but be reminded of what else made them so different.
These young men and women (two-thirds of them were under 28 years old) had joined the Marines between 2003 and 2007. Most people forget what that means. This generation has spent most of their young lives watching their friends and people they remember from high school and sometimes their own family members come home dead or wounded; in coffins or on crutches. They watched it happen for years. And then they walked into a recruiting office – on purpose - and said, “Sign me up.” At a time in the world where going into harms way was an imperative rather than a remote possibility, these people had volunteered anyway. With no real memory of a peacetime military – they raised their hands and send, “Send me, I’ll go too.”
That’s huge. That by itself is incredible. That fact – regardless of whether they ever saw combat or not – makes this generation of veterans very different than mine, and I think we should all respect that. Circumstantial or not, the decision to serve made by all young men and women today required considerations that most in my generation simply did not have to make.
I don’t remember at any time in my youth hearing the phrase “You kids today are just so darned respectful! – Hard working too!” In retrospect, I now understand that it was because we actually weren’t. We’ve just gotten to a place in our lives where we realize that being respectful and hard working are how we should be, and began to believe that we’ve always been that way.
When addressing any group on leadership I invariable get questions about handling some perceived generational divide. Always posed by someone my age, the questions veil (not well) a sort of contempt for the younger generation as being less respectful or as possessing less motivation or less something else. In truth though, it’s almost always we who fail to respect them first. We should quit blaming them for reciprocating.
The onus is on us (older vets) to respect them. It is our responsibility to be an example of the kind of people they should become by first recognizing them for being truly great people already. In the last decade they said, “Sign me up. Send me too.” To glaze over that as being the same act to serve that I made in 1983 would be a mistake. It’s not that those who joined before the war wouldn’t have; it’s not about us. It is about what they did. It was pure nobility.
To those who have sent messages of support and thanks today, I really do appreciate it – but this year I’m going to defer that respect to my own heroes; this latest bunch of real honest-to-God volunteers who knew exactly what they were in for, and did it anyway. They have earned a whole new level of respect from me and I wanted them to know it.
Have a good Veterans Day.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Coast Guard.