When I was growing up, I never paid much attention to Veterans Day or any military holidays. My father and his parents were immigrants to the United States, so there’s no history of military service there. On my mother’s side, several of the men did serve in the military, but it wasn’t talked about much. Their service seldom included combat, and I heard no heroic World War II stories of the Pacific Theater or of storming the beach at Normandy. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned anything about my grandfather’s service in the Navy during World War II, because there wasn’t much to tell. He was never stationed anywhere near conflict, and never left the United States.
When you grow up in the kind of family that I did, the military doesn’t have a face or name. In history class I learned tales of heroism, and in civics class I learned about the need for a strong military. But there was no personal connection for me. The military was a concept somewhere out there, but nothing I could ever identify with on an emotional level.
In the years since I left home, my exposure to active military and veterans has increased significantly. Over the past two decades I’ve become a friend or pastor to Marines, Naval Intelligence Officers, Air Force Veterans, and Army Colonels. I’ve seen clergy colleagues choose to serve their country as chaplains in the Army, Air Force, and at VA hospitals.
My awareness of and appreciation for military service has also grown through conducting funerals. In Western Pennsylvania, almost every funeral for an elderly man includes military service honors, as well as some funerals for elderly women. I have had the honor of presiding over committal services at the Allegheny National Cemetery, just south of Pittsburgh. I spent four years living in West Newton, PA, where the local cemetery organized a beautiful and inspiring avenue of flags for every Memorial Day weekend. And though I didn’t grow up with a personal connection to the military, I am deeply moved every time I see American Legion members give their time to provide military honors at graveside services.
Let me be clear: I have always appreciated our nation’s military. I just never felt any emotional connection or passion for it. For a long time, I understood the need to acknowledge and support veterans and active service members, but I didn’t know many of them personally.
Yet, my compassion and empathy for military service members has grown and continues to grow. That’s because the military now has faces and names for me: friends, congregants, and colleagues. While I still don’t have the connection that others might have to the military, I do have more connection than I used to. And that helps me appreciate those who serve in our military more and more each year.
I share this today for two reasons. First, I think it’s important to recognize and honor our military. The sacrifices they have made, and still make, cannot be quantified or fully understood by people like me who have not served. This is why national holidays like Veterans Day are so important. Not only does Veterans Day remind me to appreciate military service, but it also allows people who have served to feel appreciation from their nation and their neighboring citizens. Without such holidays, I may forget the importance of the service and sacrifice people make for the protection of and flourishing of our nation. And while I personally wish for a world in which militaries are no longer necessary, I know that human sinfulness has never allowed for that wish to be true for even a moment. And it likely never will. So until that day, I am thankful for those who have served - not only on Veterans Day, but all year long.
Second, allow me to point out that my appreciation for active military and veterans has grown primarily through personal relationships with individuals. It reminds me that the more we encounter people with different experiences than us, the more compassion and empathy we will have for them. Veterans teach me the importance of honoring military service. Similarly, women help me keep issues that affect only them in my heart and mind. Relationships with friends and colleagues who are persons of color impact my understanding of individual and systemic racism. Knowing openly gay, bisexual, or transgender persons has changed my perspective on LGBTQ issues and rights. And being friends with people from other parts of the United States and world helps me grow in appreciation of cultural differences, as well as understand my own culture better.
Veterans Day means something different for each of us. But it should mean something for all of us. Regardless of how close our connection to the military, this day reminds us to appreciate those who serve and sacrifice for all of us. It also reminds us of the power of personal relationships to change our minds, increase our understanding, and grow in compassion. If you are serving or have served in the United States military and know me personally, thank you for helping me understand your service and sacrifice more deeply. If you’re a veteran and I don’t know you personally, I give thanks in my prayers for your service. May you know that you are appreciated and loved for who you are and what you have accomplished.