What it means to be a veteran on Veterans Day

  • Several years ago, I wrote an article on the meaning of Memorial Day for the San Francisco Examiner. You see, it’s common for lifelong civilians to conflate the meaning of the two holidays and celebrate either as a tribute to those who are currently in the military or have previously served.

    While most of us appreciate the gesture on Memorial Day, talk to anyone who has worn a uniform and they’ll quickly say thanks, but today isn’t about us. Veterans Day, however, is. I work for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco which happens to be the home of many veterans of all branches of the U.S. military. I’ve had the good fortune to hear many of their stories over the years and realized there is much we all seem to share.

    Veterans are an interesting group of people, to say the least. Since the U.S. did away with the draft in 1973, we have been an all-volunteer military. That means that everyone who has served made the conscious decision, for whatever reason, to place his or her own mortal body between beloved home and war’s desolation. Not everyone who has served has seen the ugly face of battle, but we all joined with the expectation that we likely would.

    In the end, not even one percent of the American population has made that choice. And most veterans will tell you, we don’t blame them for that. I’m not afraid to tell you that deployment sucks. Sixteen-hour days are the norm, weekends don’t exist, and the prospect of danger—whether through accidents and mishaps or encounters with an enemy intent on killing you—is ever present. And when you’re not deployed, the rules and lifestyle don’t accommodate much in the way of personal freedom and choice.

    There’s an irony in fighting for freedom and liberty while having so little of both but again, most of us understand that when we join. And as with most things in life, it’s not all bad. The hardships of the combat zone create relationships like no other. This is a common refrain I heard when asking my fellow veterans about their time in the military, and one I can certainly agree with. My shipmates aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan have a shared experience that nothing else can touch, and it keeps our friendships thriving even when there’s half a world between us.

    I also heard a lot about the many personal virtues most of us believe we share. It’s hard to fathom the amount of responsibility even the most junior service members are given—I’ll always remember a 19-year-old sailor responsible for steering our $5 billion warship through narrow waters who didn’t have a driver’s license, but could drive a carrier. Personal virtues like accountability, influence, and leadership are built as much out of necessity as from training, because these qualities will help you survive when you’re facing the worst.

    As hard as military service can be, few of the veterans I know regret joining. Walk around San Francisco for a few minutes, however, and you’ll likely meet veterans who came back much worse than when they left. In recent days, PTSD kills far more service members than the battlefield does. More often than not, these are veterans who don’t have a personal support structure (or have exhausted the friends and family they previously had) and do not have the wherewithal to get the help they need from Veterans Affairs. Unfortunately, the VA doesn’t typically come looking for you if you haven’t reached out in a while. Making matters worse, “Military Veteran” or the like on cardboard signs is so common that many people are skeptical of the validity of the claim. Expanding San Francisco’s social safety nets for any patron would go a long way in ensuring veterans aren’t ignored.

    It’s not like veterans are lacking for services and programs to ease the transition, however. I’m a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and have taken full advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which is one of the most amazing programs this country offers. A large part of why I wasn’t afraid to leave the financial safety of the military is because I knew that I had a job waiting for me as a fulltime student. I sincerely urge any veteran not sure of their next move to talk to the VA, because there are options.

    Most veterans I’ve known truly value our experience in the military, and I think that’s why you find so many of us at the SF Fed. It’s hard to contemplate normal jobs after being a part of something so much larger than oneself—something so far-reaching, so significant in global affairs, and so heavy with the enormous weight of human life in your hands. Joining the Federal Reserve means knowing our work still matters for the wellbeing of both American citizens and the world at large. That’s a satisfaction that is hard to count in dollars, even if that’s our business here.

    So happy Veterans Day to all my fellow vets, and thanks to anyone who acknowledges us on this day. It means a lot.

    Alexander Tidd is a San Francisco native who served a five-year stint in the U.S. Navy. Serving as a mass communication specialist, he deployed three times aboard an aircraft carrier.

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