On this Veterans Day, I was working on the Gratitude chapter of my forthcoming book. On the drive home, I heard the end of a discussion of Vets in college. The speaker made reference to the loneliness that many Veterans feel. She suggested that they try to reach out to different professors or professionals. As she put it, “Educators love to help people. We don’t do it for the the money, and if you don’t connect with the first person, try someone else.”
While my father and grandfather were both in the service, few of my friends are veterans, and none of them were in combat. The reality is, I don’t have the slightest idea what combat veterans have gone through. My knowledge comes from movies like The Hurt Locker and American Sniper. In each movie, a veteran comes home, and really struggles to re-integrate into society.
One common approach that I’ve seen and used myself is to say, “Thank you for your service.” I’m told that this can make Veterans uncomfortable. They feel it is their duty to serve, and further, sometimes the generic “thank you for your service” can come across with an unspoken “I don’t know why you did it, because I sure never would have signed up to go to war.” For me, the “thank you for your service” at least gave me something to say. So if that statement isn’t appropriate, what is?
One thing that comes to mind is a phrase I picked up from an essay by Sheryl Sandberg about dealing with people after the accidental death of her husband. Sandberg explained that the question, “How are you today?” displayed a sensitivity because it acknowledged that globally she is far from fine, and allowed for a relative answer. I don’t know how well that will translate to the case of talking to a Veteran, because they may or may not be struggling personally. Perhaps the answer is to ask a personalized question, like “When did you serve?” or “How has the transition back to civilian life been for you?”
Hmmm, the latter is a bit scary, because it opens the door to an answer that could be intense.
Mussar started this line of thought for me, so perhaps Mussar can help answer the question. How do we show Gratitude towards Veterans? The Soul Trait Gratitude is a measure of how we see the world. The literal translation from the Hebrew for this Soul Trait is “Recognizing the good,” as in finding the good in any situation that life puts you in. Part of practicing Gratitude is not taking things for granted, and we certainly should not take it for granted that people are willing to volunteer for combat duty. Yet if we shouldn’t say “thank you,” what should we do?
One approach is to practice Honor, which teaches us to honor the Divine Spark in others. Rabbi Alan Lew wrote that when we look at life through a spiritual lens, for every situation we ask ourselves “How did I contribute to this situation?” and “What can I do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?” We live in a country where our Veterans suffer from PTSD, depression, and commit suicide at an alarming rate. Maybe the answer is on two fronts:
- Personal connection as above when we meet or know a Veteran, as above
- Action in the political arena. For example, too long we tolerated a government that did not adequately fund the VA. I read an encouraging article today that a growing number of cities and states have resolved to end Veteran homelessness.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. I really am looking for answers, and additional ways to either connect or help. Please share your ideas below.