Written by: Daniel Savage, IVMF Chief of Staff
This weekend we come together as a nation to remember those who gave their lives in our nation’s wars. We come together to honor and reflect upon the service and sacrifice of those who have fought, bled, and died on foreign soil to keep us free and safe.
As a former infantry officer, fifteen months in Iraq taught me that death in war is a complicated thing. In my experience, it is rarely as epic and dramatic as the movies suggest. While some die valiantly in pursuit of an enemy, others are caught unaware by a sniper’s bullet or a roadside bomb, or are killed tragically in accidents or by friendly fire. We can debate the merits of the conflicts in which our loved ones have died – whether the causes were just or the outcomes desirable – but the truth is that all death in war is tragic, and all those who died are heroes, because all who died did so in the service of others and the ideal that is America. Whether draftee or volunteer, each raised his or her right hand and said, “Send me.” Each was willing to die for an idea – for duty, or freedom, or simply to save those fighting to their left and right.
How then, are we to commemorate their sacrifice? How can we possibly do justice to such an act of selflessness? Are our parades and speeches and barbeques sufficient, or even appropriate? Every grave at Arlington National Cemetery will have a flag placed next to it. Is that enough?
I believe that the best way to say thank you to those who didn’t make it home is to take care of those who did. In the words of President Lincoln, we must “care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” After all, our honored dead gave their lives, in part, so that their brothers and sisters in arms could live on. And for many veterans, “living on” is no small task.
I say this because in the same way that my experiences in Baghdad conferred to me a tragic and intimate understanding of the relationship between war and death, I’ve also come to understand that surviving a war and coming home is complicated business, too. While some veterans are left with grief over the loss of their friends, or guilt over having survived when others did not, many veterans simply don’t know what to do next after experiencing the extreme highs and lows of war. They have spent years of their lives solely focused on preparing for and surviving combat, and haven’t always put much thought into what would happen when they return home.
Whether separating from the military by choice or by force (in the case of our wounded warriors), many veterans struggle to construct a post-service identity for themselves or to plot a way forward to the future. Those who serve in our military are used to regimentation, having their lives, their schedules, and even their physical location dictated by the needs of the service. In contrast, the ambiguity of civilian life can be very confusing and off-putting, leaving some veterans to struggle with depression over not knowing what to do next, and wondering why they left the service at all. This transition can be jarring. We all know about the epidemic of service member and veteran suicide; I firmly believe that at its most extreme, this loss of direction is an important catalyst causing a veteran to make that choice. After all, suicide is the last measure of hopelessness. Staring into the abyss of an unknown future, struggling to build a life which will mean as much to them as their service did, this can cause many veterans to simply give up.
At its core, though, this lack of direction is the same that many civilians face, perhaps heightened by the significance and intensity of veterans’ life experiences. While delayed as a consequence of their service, veterans transitioning to civilian life belatedly struggle with the same question that most civilians face after high school or in their college years, asking themselves, “What do I do with the rest of my life?”
This is where we as Americans have a golden opportunity to serve those who have served us. Those who died were fighting for the right for the person next to them to come home. Honor them by helping the men and women they served with realize their full potential. You see, our nation’s veterans are uniquely positioned for success in civilian life. Given not just their service and sacrifice, but their extraordinary maturity, knowledge, skills, and capabilities, this transition is an opportunity for them to “be all they can be,” as the old Army recruiting slogan goes.
There is a long tradition in our country of veterans returning home and building up the country they defended. They rise to positions of leadership in their communities and professions, becoming little league coaches, teachers, professors, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and elected officials. The much heralded “Greatest Generation” rebuilt our country after World War II, turning it into the powerhouse which would drive us all to the future. Today’s generation of veterans is equally capable, equally skilled, and equally positioned to make a similar impact on our nation’s history. With our help, they truly can earn the moniker of “The Next Greatest Generation” which many have already bestowed upon them. Supporting and empowering our veterans is not an act of charity, but rather it is in the interest of society as a whole.
This Memorial Day, if you are looking to commemorate the sacrifice of those we have lost, take a look around at your town’s parade. I’m sure you will see plenty of veterans proudly wearing their unit t-shirt or a hat naming the ship they served on. Take a moment of your time, and sit down with those who have survived. Welcome them into your community, talk to them about their future, connect them with your personal and professional networks, and help them explore the range of possibilities which await them. Help them brainstorm about opportunities and plan a way forward. Those who died did so while defending our freedom. To remember them best, help their brothers and sisters in arms make the most of the freedom they have earned through their own service. We owe them nothing less.
Dan Savage is the Chief of Staff of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a former infantry officer, and a veteran of the war in Iraq.