O Say Can You See

While waiting for my physical therapy appointment, I overheard another patient talking about her nephew who had just graduated from the Marine Corps’ basic training. Mike, the NVF staffer who’d dropped me off, mentioned to her that I was a vet, and he told her about the National Veterans Foundation.

She turned to us and talked about the graduation ceremony, how beautiful and moving it had been.  Her nephew had   enlisted to have access to GI education benefits after his service. The United States Marine Corps was a stepping stone on his way to realizing a dream.  She beamed as she told us this. As he’d stood before her in his dress uniform, she had admired how straight and tall he was, how full of promise.  As we were leaving, I said to her, “You must be very proud of him.”

“Yes,” she said. “I just hope he doesn’t get called to serve overseas. I want him to be safe.”  I knew where she meant. These are the longest-running wars in our history.  And I also knew that the likelihood that he would be sent into combat was great. It’s that young man I’m thinking of on Flag Day.

Less than one percent of the population serves in our all-volunteer military. But that young man has an extended family with its own traditions. He has friends and acquaintances including his new-found buddies in the Corps.  He has the good wishes and concern from a total stranger like me. All that enlarges his circle, but still…less than one percent.  We owe so much to so few.

His aunt will likely have his graduation portrait on a wall, tabletop or bookcase in her home…him in his uniform, crisp white cap on his head, the flag at his side. To her, his portrait will be as iconic as the image of those Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. A photo from World War II that may not be familiar to him.  It struck me that our military has been in Iraq and Afghanistan most, if not all, of this young man’s life. And the war continues…

Traveling after 9/11, I remember crowds parting in airports to welcome troops home. People offered smiles, cheers, cups of coffee, meals, expressions of their gratitude.  That lasted about two years.  Does it take something like a 9/11 to get people’s attention?  I hope not.

Flag Day comes two weeks after Memorial Day.  It’s a national holiday, but not a paid holiday, so there’s less fanfare. The flag is flown and there are some parades, probably some essay contests for students, “What the Flag Means to Me,” that sort of thing.  A sale at the hardware store, maybe. And then we’ll settle into summer.

But for this young man, it’s all beginning. He’ll fulfill his part of the bargain. He’s completed his training and will now be assigned to a duty station somewhere. He’s willing to put himself in harm’s way. Hopefully he’ll serve out his commitment without incident and go on to college as he’s planned. Let’s hope that it goes exactly as he’s imagined, and the next time his aunt goes to his graduation ceremony, he’ll cross that stage and receive his college degree.

But let’s be prepared to welcome him home with every aspect of support he needs after his service.  That’s what we do at the National Veterans Foundation.  Because coming home shouldn’t be the hardest part of serving in the military.  Let’s hold this young man in our hearts and minds as he embarks on his mission.

And then let’s expand our focus to include all his colleagues and every veteran, regardless of where and when they served. We owe so much to so few.

If you know a veteran who needs help, here’s our vet-to-vet Lifeline for Vets number: 888.777.4443

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Shad Meshad

As a U.S. Army Medical Service Officer in Vietnam in 1970, Shad Meshad began pioneering treatment techniques for what would later become known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He is the founder of the National Veterans Foundation and founder and co-author of the VA’s Vet Center Program.

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