When, in the process of growing older and growing up, do we sense that special something, which distinguishes the individual who has served in the defense of our country?
Since Sept. 11, like everyone else, I have become more aware of their presence. We stop and take note, many of us voicing a “thank you” to the young man or woman who walks by. Uniforms arouse respectful appreciation, even from those who disagree with the government’s troop deployment to foreign soil. Later, though, after the silent salute of honorary discharge, without the shining insignia and medals on designated brown or white or blue apparel, veterans become part of the fabric of our communities. They bear the permanent scars of combat, some physically apparent; others, much deeper.
Gradually, our troops take their places in the civilian world. That is as it should be; they have paid the price on our behalf. Having completed their time in the armed services, they return home, hoping to live again with the rest of us, day by day going to work, raising their children and then, grandchildren, leaving behind the raw memories of where they have been. The ease with which that happens depends upon us, their would-be neighbors, and how much we want to express that “thank you.”
Once in our midst, they become unidentifiable by appearance, and yet, there is something different, a bearing or, perhaps, an attitude. The more recent the training, the more perceptible that difference, but even years after military careers have ended, a certain balance between motion and stillness sets the veteran apart from the rest of us. It becomes visible it the way a veteran stands.
“Chin up. Shoulders back.” The words describe a familiar posture. Films have attempted portrayal of the unflinching cadet at West Point or Annapolis. Movie scenes depict the Gunny demanding more from his Marines than they think they ever can give. Actors on the screen put us in the boots of the young private dressed down by his sergeant. We hear the emphasis upon the last syllable of “At-ten-TION” and find ourselves standing straighter, but the readiness of a veteran is beyond imitation.
Drilled into the psyche for the specific purpose of guaranteeing action, instantaneous focus will mean the difference between living and dying. Football players listen to the quarterback’s signals, their bodies poised to move; racetrack drivers, hands on the wheel, rev their engines; swimmers take their mark awaiting the starting gun; but the veteran retains that automatic response in whatever he does for the rest of his or her life. Nothing in the adrenalin-pumping sports world matches what lies behind the soldier’s alert.
The veteran’s bearing reflects something deep inside. All who shoulder the responsibility of protecting their fellow citizens share an intense appreciation for human life. Once learned, the instinctive response remains intact, no matter how far in the past that training occurred. A singular capacity for understanding connects veterans with each other, going well beyond politics, religion or economics. Without words they extend a reassuring hand: step across the room to stand next to a newcomer, sit down with the wife of a newly deceased friend, wait to walk with a slower old timer.
Yes, there is something different about a veteran.
Attention: Today is your day, veterans.
Here, where we live, in this county on Colorado’s western slope, some 1,700 of you have served in the military. It is indeed necessary for the rest of us to recognize you, look into your eyes with full awareness of who you are, and say “Thank you.”
Harriet Freiberger has lived in the Elk River valley since 1982