Listen to a veteran today

Johnson City Press • Nov 11, 2018 at 8:00 AM

As the nation honors its veterans again today, some of us will fly a flag outside our homes, attend a commemorative event, listen to speeches or post thanks on social media.

What enough of us won’t do is simply listen.

Often we treat our veterans with abstract platitudes and lump them all into a rigid ideal rooted in patriotism. We call them all heroes, thank them for their service, sing the National Anthem and move on.

We forget that every veteran’s story is unique. Sure, they have many commonalities from military involvement, but each man and woman who donned a uniform did so with a different background, motivation and experiences.

So how do those of us who never served get a deeper understanding of who veterans are and why we should recognize their service?

The internet is full of advice about what to ask or say — and what not to say or ask — to veterans about their service to the country. There’s debate among veterans about whether the standard “Thank you for your service” and “We all owe you for our freedoms” statements are gratifying or patronizing. Some may appreciate the sentiments. Others may find them hollow and hackneyed.

Last year, Starbucks published a list of service-related questions — developed from a survey of a veterans — you might pose to a veteran. They include: Why did you join? Do you come from a military family? Why did you choose the branch that you did? How long did you serve? Was your training harder or easier than you expected? Did you visit any other countries? What was the most interesting cultural experience you had?

But the list also includes more personal questions: What are your kids like? Do you have any pets? What was the last movie you went to see? How’s your family doing? In other words, ask the same questions you would anyone you’re getting to know.

Experts also advise to never ask about the deaths of comrades, whether veterans had to kill or about their political thoughts regarding U.S. military actions. If veterans choose to open up about such matters, let them do so on their own accord.

You get the idea: A positive approach is everything.

Perhaps the easiest, most respectful way to learn is to ask this: What would you like me know about you and your time in the military?

Nov. 11 holds a revered spot in our history. The date was first celebrated in 1919 as Armistice Day on the first anniversary of World War I’s conclusion. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name of the observance to Veterans Day, which allowed the country to celebrate veterans from both World Wars, the Korean War and all service after.

The last American World War I veteran died in 2011 at the age of 110. World War II veterans are leaving us in rapid fashion. Of the 16.1 million who served, an estimated 558,000 remained alive in 2017. History leaves us with each passing.

Every veteran is a living history lesson. The best way for us to honor that history is to open our ears.

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