Each Veterans Day marks a time of great significance to many Americans. Most of all, it characterizes a special moment of commemoration for those who have served in the military. It is a time to reflect upon the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty, signifying a day to honor those who forfeited their lives for their country. Certainly, all Americans can honor the fallen heroes who did not return home, but it seems to have special meaning to those service members and veterans who lost friends in the line of duty.
As for me, I proudly served as an Army Ranger with the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment out of Fort Benning, Georgia. I merely spent a few short years in the military, as my enlistment was cut short by injuries sustained during combat operations in Central America. Only rising to the rank of Specialist, I do not claim to be an expert on military service. However, I can recognize the sacrifices made by the young men and women who have served and currently serve our country.
I simply spent one night in combat, but it was enough for me to understand that warfare is not for the weak of heart. In 1989, the United States sent its fighting men and women to quell a problem with a dictator, Manuel Noriega, on the tiny Isthmus of Panama. Noriega, who had been a longtime friend of America, had recently turned hostile upon the United States. As America had multiple military bases and control of the Panama Canal within the small country, Noriega’s hostility posed a significant security risk to American operations in Central America. As a result, President George H.W. Bush sent the U.S. military to capture Noriega and return him to American soil for trial on drug trafficking charges. As a side benefit, his capture allowed the United States to install a new leader, who was friendlier to American interests in the country.
As for me, I was injured during the combat parachute jump into the country, breaking several bones. Even so, my injuries were minor compared to the ultimate loss of life made by many during that operation. My unit lost a handful of fighting men, but many more lives were lost across Panama that night. Young lives were snuffed out in an instant. These were people with lives back home, which included mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters. Many had spouses and children awaiting their return, but their return would never come. Families would wait in vain until notified by strangers that their loved ones would never return home alive.
As a result, I feel a bit guilty each Veterans Day. Often, this is a hard concept to understand for those who have not served in the military. Let me explain. The guilt stems from the fact that while most of us came home, many did not. When someone turns to me on Veterans Day and thanks me for my service, I remember those who did not return home. Thus, the tinge of guilt emerges. Why should those of us who lived be honored as heroes, while so many American heroes forfeited their lives?
True, there are many living American heroes who deserve our respect and gratitude. However, my guess is that these heroes will feel like they did nothing significant, because they compare their service with those who did not return home. To them, nothing they did could ever measure up to those who fatally fell in the line of duty. Hence, the tinge of guilt emerges for receiving honor felt undeserved, while others lie in a hero’s grave.
So, when you thank service members and veterans for their duty, do so while understanding the source of their humility. It is a humility borne of respect for those friends who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. When you thank a veteran, remember those who are no longer here to receive honor and thanks. Freely remember their sacrifice and then remember that their sacrifice is the reason you are free.