There are very few words that catch me quite like “Veteran”. It’s such a short word, but in today’s world, it means so much and identifies a person in just seven letters. Yesterday, I attended a local job fair that I thought was just for Veterans. However, I learned that it wasn’t specifically for Vets, but that it was sponsored and coordinated by a local Veterans support organization. The job fair was a major bust for me, but I did go with an ulterior motive and that was to support a local Veterans appreciation event held in my county every year.
After I spoke and gave my presentation to promote the event, I hung around to answer any questions from the group. And a few people did, in fact, stay behind to talk to me. A father asked if his teenage daughter, who is contemplating joining the military after high school, could contact me (“Of course!” was my response), another lady introduced herself as a family friend and a young guy who looked like a former Marine asked if he could take a pamphlet. But of everyone who stopped to chat, a very elderly man came by and our conversation went like this:
“Excuse me miss, but I just have to ask….are YOU a Veteran?!” he asked with astonishment in his voice.
“Yes, sir,” I answered. “I served four years in the Navy.”
“I’m a Sailor too!” he said through laughter. “I served during WWII on PT boats!”
I grabbed his hand, shook it firmly and said, “Thank you for your service to our country, sir.”
At this point another astonished look came over his face and he said, “In all my life, I’ve only ever had six people shake my hand and say thank you to me for serving.” And this is where the astonished look washed over my face.
“Veteran” is an all-encompassing word that lumps every former servicemember into a group of special individuals. Every person has their reason for serving and every person has their reason for getting out. Regardless, they are still a Veteran and are entitled to the benefits and respect that come with the title. However, I am currently struggling these days with labeling myself as a Veteran. I ask myself, “How can I be a part of a group of individuals who include people like the elderly WWII Vet who saw and experienced much more horrific and incredible things than myself? Those whose lives were truly in danger and those who made serious risks and sacrifices are on a totally different level than me! How can I bear that same title?”
Yes, I served in the Navy for just over four years. Yes, I spent the majority of those four years at sea and now I find myself starting a new beginning with the Navy as a reservist. Therefore, by definition, I, too, am labeled as a “Veteran”. However, I can’t help but think that what I’ve done and my service hardly warrants the esteemed title. In my mind, Veterans are an entirely different generation of men and women — those who fought in WWII, Vietnam, Korea and the Middle East. The ones who saw battle unfold before their very eyes and crossed into enemy territories not because they wanted to, but because they knew it was the right thing to do as Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines. I served on a ship for four years, never fired a missile, never saw battle and most certainly never felt like my life was in danger. I struggle with the title of “Veteran” because I feel that my service hardly warrants being categorized with those who truly risked their lives for our nation and its causes.
My father is the Director of Veteran’s Affairs for our county. My brother, while waiting to start flight training with the Marine Corps, currently works for Veterans Moving Forward, a non-profit organization that provides service dogs to Veterans with physical and mental health challenges. Between the three of us, we are a family made up of a retired Air Force officer (my father), a former naval officer (myself) and a young Marine Corps officer (my brother). You can say that the military and Veterans is our “family business” and I couldn’t be more proud of a greater family cause. But, regardless of that, I still feel strange and a bit at odds with putting myself in the same category of the individuals whom my family serves on a regular basis.
Since being home and out of the Navy, I’ve picked up a few projects (by the nature of our family business) that support local Veterans associations and events and it is extremely satisfying to be able to serve those who’ve served. While I struggle with the label for myself, I truly hope that the next few weeks leading up to Veterans Day will allow my family and all Veterans organizations to reach out to those who’ve served and thank them for their sacrifices. Because it’s people like the elderly gentlemen who spoke with me yesterday who really deserve our thanks.
Alison is a four-year Navy veteran who served on two ships and deployed on multiple occasions to the Western Pacific. She recently transitioned from the Navy and is looking for a new career path. She is originally from Berks County, Pennsylvania.