Their view: Meaning of Veterans Day shifts after serving military duty

Josh Grenzsund

Veterans Day used to be one of those holidays I could just as soon ignore as acknowledge. I, like most people, could not even tell you what month it fell in or even if it had a fixed date or was one of those floater holidays.

Sure, my grandparents and some of my parents’ friends had served, but my father had not been drafted, and in general, the town I grew up in, in the 1980s, joined the nation in its ambivalence toward the latest wave of veterans. Whether or not you were a Vietnam veteran in Western Montana, at that time, spoke as much about you as your choice of Winchester or Savage, Husqvarna or Stihl, Chevy or Ford, trailer or a home with a foundation, but it was one topic few people actually did speak about.

That changed in 1991, when we invaded Iraq the first time. It became acceptable to be a veteran, and the community threw up yellow ribbons all over town for the young men and women in the military. I noted the change in the country, but vowed never to serve unless my home state was invaded.

Six short years later, I changed my mind as I surveyed a future of peace and stability. I was sure nothing would happen in the next eight years that could make me question my choice to take Uncle Sugar’s college money.

Of course, that changed too. By the time 2003 came to a close, I was preparing to go overseas. I’ve long since gone and come back, but I’m still learning a lot from what I learned being in Afghanistan, if that makes any sense. I’m still learning because part of the country, the experiences, the reasons, and the ramifications are lodged into my bones.

I think a lot of new veterans experience this same kind of learning. While veterans are all radically different individuals, it still means we will interpret motivations, behaviors, and places differently than those who have not been stabbed with anthrax and smallpox, flown in a cargo plane to a sweltering, dusty runway and shown how to consider other humans’ lives in terms of targets and a job well done.

Actually, if you can disregard the moral difficulties that accompany the sanctioned killing of people you don’t know, military service these days does provide an extremely high level of job satisfaction. I don’t mean that it is a satisfaction to know you’ve killed or helped kill people, but there is something about working long and hard to accomplish a goal, and on top of finishing each task you get the added benefit of being happy as hell that you’re still alive and feeling like you played a personal part in that end.

But being a veteran of these current wars, and then coming to the university, means a lot more than that.

It means making some family members, friends, and classmates very uncomfortable with the apparent and real moral valence you have demonstrated.

It means feeling naked without the comfortable weight of your weapon slung over your shoulder, against your body.

It means judging distances by the range of your service weapon.

It means having a good idea what each campus building would look like if it had taken a barrage of small arms fire, 30mm cannon fire, a 500-pound bomb, or all of these.

It means sometimes feeling like you are dreaming or hallucinating when you walk quietly among dozens or hundreds of peaceful people on campus, wondering if they are ignorant of the dust, diesel fumes, heat, itching, diarrhea, sweat, blood and fear they could be walking through if only they were somewhere else or had made a different choice.

It means wondering if you have made the right choice, and wondering if you can actually manage this peace, manage putting your life’s energy into something that oftentimes seems irrelevant or even trite when compared to working every day to help keep people you know and care about alive and not maimed.

It means wondering if you can manage the absence and invisibility of things that really matter and bring yourself down to worry about and concentrate on something seemingly as irrelevant and minuscule as a grade point average or as hypocritically abstract as discussing what philosophical theories may account for disavowal and reification of the objects, people and language that seem to form our consciousness and perceived reality. You wonder if you can do all this while consciously shutting out of the classroom the real noise from a severe foreign policy and a national ignorance of a series of wars that are in their sixth year, producing veterans and casualties on all sides, by the thousands.

Veterans Day, or as it was originally known, Armistice Day, was meant to honor those who had fought in the Great War, to show gratefulness for the victory, and to demonstrate a commitment to peace. I visited home this past summer, my name now on a yellow ribbon along the main street. A neighbor I never knew was a Vietnam veteran welcomed me home and for me, paradoxically, demonstrated the uncommon peace that veterans have learned how to understand.

We need to observe Veterans Day because we need to continually reconsider if our collective and individual actions or inactions, support or opposition, mean that we are actually going to live in a more peaceful world.

The above column, by Josh Grenzsund, appeared in the Oregon Daily Emerald

(University of Oregon) yesterday.