Some years back, I was at the gym on the eve of a day that had become pretty special to me. In another row of lockers, I heard two guys talking and one asked the other if he had the day off. “You doing anything on Memorial Day?” he asked.
I intruded just long enough to add a correction. “It’s Veterans Day,” I said, “not Memorial Day.”
A disembodied voice came back, “Whatever, dude.”
Whatever indeed, I thought.
For some, Veterans Day is just a day off; a day away from the classroom or the office. For others, it’s a trip to the mall and shopping special sales. For others, it’s the sound of little flags snapping in the wind as accompaniment to the mournful wail of “taps.” After all, the day is set aside to bring the unseen and unknown sacrifices of those who have answered a call most don’t even hear into the forefront of our collective national conscience. It is good that we do that as a nation. We all need to honor even if we can’t recall, relate or remember.
But for those who do recall a past of blood, death and fire, it really is a day of “whatever, dude.” For those who have endured the pain of war and inflicted that pain on those our country called the enemy, a national day of reckoning is all well and good.
The truth is, however, that each combat soldier has his own personal “Veterans Day.” Those days are not celebrated or shared. They recur in the mind on that special anniversary; that indelibly etched day when the reality of war burns its psychic scar onto the mind, body and soul.
It could be the day when war claimed a friend. It could be the day when the pressure of your finger on the trigger took the life of another human being. It could be the day when you felt the white hot searing of metal tearing into your flesh.
Whatever it was, it was yours and yours alone: to remember, to relive and to revile. Verily, every day of the year is probably a personal Veterans Day for those who have walked in a world of fear and loneliness and sudden death.
Our patriotic holidays are collective. On those days, we hope that we can impress the nation with some hint of what it really means to have served. It’s a well-intentioned gesture that usually falls short. We can’t really know what it is like to risk life and limb simply because your country deems it necessary.
So the nation will bow its collective head while the flags snap and the bugle sounds. But when the last notes have drifted away over the fields, the heads will come up and life will go on.
Personal Veterans Days are much different. They don’t involve crowds or speeches. They are not celebrated, but rather are endured alone, in silence, with a tear and a drink to keep one company in the shadow of remembrance.
“All is well, safely rest … God is nigh.”
Stephen T. Banko III served two combat tours of duty in Vietnam and has worked in government service for more than 30 years.