Christmas ads have begun their assault on Thanksgiving, skipping right over the month’s other humble holiday: Veteran’s Day. After a busy week, I have finally caught up on this year’s noble efforts to put Veteran’s Day in our national consciousness. These efforts, however, go against the national trend of greater detachment from the military.
In my parents and grandparents generation, the draft made America’s wars a ubiquitous reality for a greater share of Americans. Pew’s research on a growing Military-Civilian gap shows that only 33% of 18-29 year olds reported having an immediate family member who served in the military, compared to 79 percent for 50-64 year olds. Our all-volunteer military may be better trained and more efficient, but isolates everyday citizens from the costs and benefits of America’s collective actions.
The resulting disconnect leaves civilian encounters with active military personnel and veterans as awkward and impersonal. The over the top shows of military pride at sporting events seem too often to be a patronizing attempt to overcompensate for our collective ignorance. An impressive idea is reimagining Veteran’s Day as not solely about military service, but as a celebration of service to America’s common purposes.
Jason Mangone and MacKenzie Moritz wrote a thoughtful piece advocating that very idea. They hearkened back to 1954 when Armistice Day was remade as Veterans Day:
“President Eisenhower called us to remember, but also to hold ourselves responsible. Today, we hand out a lot of “thank-you’s for your service,” but do very little to honor that service by forging a culture united in common cause… Today, we either pity our veterans as victims or we exalt them as heroes; we rarely approach them as citizens.”
This disconnect leaves civilians too often to interact with veterans in awkward ways instead of appreciating a humble commitment to service. In fact, 55% of Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans report feeling disconnected from those who did not serve.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran were appalled at stories of how civilians treated combat veterans as if they were all mentally unstable, broken, or even dangerous. In the course of writing a book about today’s Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans, they met Eric Greitens who was frustrated after his friend was turned away from volunteering from a youth serving organization out of fears that his military experience might make him harmful to the kids. Greitens believed that the instinct to serve does not go away after you’re discharged and founded The Mission Continues which funds fellowships for veterans to serve in community development programs across the country.
An instinct to serve one’s country is a natural part of citizenship and should be fostered. Veterans are citizens who performed an extraordinary national service and we all should commemorate Veteran’s Day by following their example. Short of enlisting, we can and should serve a cause that’s bigger than ourselves as citizens in a nation that needs us to actively improve it.
Matt Impink is a former US History Teacher and Education Policy Advocate. He is currently a Graduate Student at IU’s School for Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) in Indianapolis and curates the Civic Blog. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets @mrimpink.