We have to do more than just say “Thank you”

(This was my address at yesterday’s Memorial Day service at our local VFW post.)

1 Corinthians 12:20, 25-27

In the eternal debate over Star Wars vs. Star Trek, I come down decidedly on the Trek side. First time I watched Star Trek, I think I was four years old. At the time it was just what was on the television in the afternoon when I was set in front of it so my mom could get some stuff done without constant interference from a preschooler asking questions. Later I began to appreciate some of the humor, especially the constant bickering between Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy. I saw all the episodes of the original series, and saw the movies, too. (My aunt Sue firmly declared she’d never go see another movie with me, after I stood up and screamed in the theater when Mr. Spock died at the end of the second Trek movie.)

For a long time I was a purist, insisting that the original series was the only Star Trek that should exist. It wasn’t until Mike and I started dating that I began to watch The Next Generation. Since that one was on the air a lot longer than the original series, there was a lot more opportunity for character development, and the characters became much more complex and interesting than the ones on the original series had the chance to be. And like its predecessor, TNG had many episodes that were thinly veiled commentary on the 20th century world.

There was one such episode of TNG that sticks in my mind. In this episode a man comes aboard the Enterprise, seeking refuge from a ship full of people from his planet who are pursuing him. They claim he’s a dangerous criminal who has escaped, and needs to be taken back into custody. Over the course of the episode we learn that the man was a soldier, specially trained to fight the planet’s enemies. After he and his fellow soldiers completed their service, they were deemed unfit for the everyday life of the planet’s people, and were exiled to a remote area. There was a whole colony of these veterans—for that is what they were—sentenced to life imprisonment for “violent tendencies” or something, because their people had called on them to fight the people’s enemies. One had escaped, and told the story to the Enterprise crew before he could be recaptured and silenced. And, of course, since this was an episode of a one-hour television series, the whole mess was cleaned up quickly and easily, the planet’s officials shown the error of their ways and a system put into place for the re-integration of the veterans into their society, and all was well by the time the final credits rolled.

Things aren’t, of course, quite that neat and tidy in real life.

I’m not entirely sure we have learned all the lessons we need to learn from the Vietnam era. But there is one lesson we learned well. History is not entirely in agreement about how widespread the insulting acts of peace activists spitting on soldiers returning from Vietnam or calling them baby-killers were. I don’t see the need to argue about how often that happened—as far as I’m concerned, once is too much. And however frequent it was, it’s something that we have not wanted to repeat, and rightly so. Thus we never waste the opportunity to offer our thanks to our servicemen and -women.

I belong to a Facebook group devoted to the fine art of barbecue—smoking meat, making sauce, that sort of thing. Couple weeks ago one of the group members posted a picture of a rack of ribs he was getting ready to cook. He prefaced his comment by saying that this was the first smoking he’d been able to do since returning from his deployment in Afghanistan; and then he asked for some advice on cooking time, technique, sauce, and so on. Every single comment—every single one—began, before offering any advice or help, with “Thank you for your service.”

This is a good thing. But I would argue that it isn’t enough.

A Memorial Day observance like this is not the time or the place for partisan politics. Nor is the matter of remembering those who have served our country a partisan issue. Men and women have been placed in danger on our behalf, to fight our country’s enemies. Some of those who serve did not come back. Others came back wounded. They came back missing limbs, without their sight, unable to walk, with traumatic brain injuries. Some came back without physical injury, but with wounded spirits and broken hearts. Many watched friends and comrades die, and perhaps wondered why they survived while their brothers and sisters did not. Some did not serve in combat—but still they saw horrors they would not soon forget.

We are here to remember those who have gone on before us—those who died in service, as well as those who have died since. We need to remember, also, that every day more of our brothers- and sisters-in-arms leave us. Some of these deaths are natural—the ranks of the veterans of the Second World War and Korea are growing thinner because of simple old age. But some are casualties of their service, no matter how many years it’s been since they returned home. For example, Agent Orange still ravages our Vietnam veterans.

Every day 22 veterans—many of them over 50 years of age—commit suicide. Some of these suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, others from moral injury, something the VA has only recently recognized as separate from PTSD.

Then there are the more than 40,000 veterans who are homeless—and that is a decrease of one third since 2010. Some homeless veterans will die on the streets. We can argue about the factors that lead to homelessness, or how to address them, but we cannot argue about the fact that we cannot simply accept this. Politics aside—this should not be a partisan issue—I long for the day when those two words, “homeless veteran,” will never again be said together.

If we simply say, “Thank you for your service,” important though it is, and then assume our job is done, we are mistaken. That’s little better than how the veterans in the Star Trek episode were treated. Of course we must say it; but we need to do more than that, much more.

But we are here today to remember those who have died. Is this the right time to talk about the needs of living veterans?

I believe it is. I believe that one of the best ways we can remember the veterans who have already left us—whether during their service or after—is to make sure our nation honors its responsibility to those who are still with us. This is my challenge for everyone who is here today.

I cannot tell you how best to do that. There are many things we can do—we can call or write to our members of Congress, to the President, to other government leaders who might be in a position to make decisions affecting veterans. Maybe some of us are in a position to do something even more direct, volunteering in one way or another, or even making it our occupation. I can’t tell anyone what they should do for the sake of our veterans; we each have to decide that for ourselves. But my challenge to everyone here is to do more than just say, “Thank you.”

In memory of those to whom we’ve already said good-bye, let us serve and care for those who are still here.


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