The Definition of a Veteran

Photo of Alison DerrThere 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.


Alison Derr


  1. Beki    

    Beautifully said, Ali. I am proud of, and grateful for, all of the men and women, dads and moms, brothers and sisters who have served our country. It is understandable that the elderly gentleman whose hand you shook today made such an impression upon you, but don’t belittle yourself for not serving in the same capacity as he and many others have. You are a veteran in every sense of the word. You may not have seen a battle or fired a missile, but only because the US Navy had other plans for you. Had you been told to do otherwise, you would have done so, and proudly. Continue to stand tall. You’ve done a wonderful thing, and I know there are many more wonderful things in your future.

  2. dwane J Thomas    


    This is a great read. I need you to know something though. You don’t have to “see” battle, be involved in ” battle” to be a Vet. If you are in the military, you are at risk. This means, you willingly put your life on the line for others. Not many people in the world can say that, much less many Americans. THIS, is why you should wear that veteran badge with honor. You deserve it, just like we all do. In my eyes, it has nothing to do with being injured, seeing a friend die in battle, etc. Although those that have lost life and limb should be held in the highest regard. It’s the fact that you made a commitment to this country and to this countries people. You were willing, if need be, to die for us. That’s what makes you a Vet. I salute you, Thank you for your service.

    Dwane J Thomas

  3. patrick gullickson    

    Thank you allision, for you comment, it stirred my emotions thank you for your service, and you are a veteran and stop hanging your head about it! That’s what an old timer told me. I was injuried in marine boot camp, and at 55 now I wished so many times that I would die! That’s the reallity of not settling inner issues! I had to by orders from head doc. Practice saying iam a veteran. I joined the marine detacthment, and am trying to serve my country, but when I was honerable discharge, I was a marine, that didn’t tell many because of the constant shame I’ve lived with! It wants to kill me, but please don’t let it hurt you any more. Thank you for your honor and continued service to our courtry, semper fi comrade. Pat– private frist class U.S.M.C. 1980

    1. Jack Kelley    

      Brother, you graduated from boot camp. They gave you your uniform. You are a Marine, forever.

      Take pride in doing what you set out to do.

  4. Dennis Lovett    

    Hi from Australia. My name as you can see is Dennis. I just want to thank you for what you wrote and said about us Vets. It is certainly a hard aspect to understand if you think that your service was not as good as mine. This is incorrect thinking and before I rattle on to much, I am a Vietnam Veteran who served in SVN from 1968 to1969. I was with the Australian Task Force situated in Phouc Thy Province and more specifically NUI DAT.(North West of Saigon AKA Ho Chi Minn City) The fact is that you served your country like I did. Does that me me any different from you? I think not and you are selling yourself short. You are a Veteran and because you didn’t see any scary stuff doesn’t mean that the potential for scary stuff wasn’t there. Situations can change in the wink of an eye and you find yourself at the pointy end of a rifle. I love being honoured and spoken about with gratitude and pride BUT I think the same thing about you. So thank you for your sacrifice and I wish you all the very best for the rest of your precious life. Den

  5. Janice Reighard    

    Every veteran is important. Thank you for your service!

    1. Benny Platt    

      I spent 3years, 4 months in the US Navy. Two years in Viet Nam, one at sea, one “boots on the ground” as they say. I am 62 years old and showing the concerns of AO. every person who enters the military does a job, some in combat, some supporting the combat troups.With the support personell the combat troups will not survive. Every job is important, the mechanic that greases the wheel is as important as the driver. Don’t sell yourself short, be proud to be a Veteran and an american.

  6. James Laubler    


    I was a Special Forces Soldier who worked on the border of Kuwait/Saudi in Gulf War I. I too, like you, am in awe of our brothers who served during Viet Nam. Our work seems to pale in comparisonon to their sacrifices.

    But, for me, I am eternally grateful of the estimated 10 support people who back up every one combat soldier. I recall the big guns banging away on the opposition (those poor Kurdishdish conscripts). When an enemy mortar unit took a pot shot at us, four cobras quickly showed up and ended the fight before it started.

    We can’t do the job without people like you. Our VERY LIVES depend on people who support us, from the cook, to personnel clerks who insured my family had money, to the Navy and Marine brothers who kept local support close to us.

    Parish your thought. We can’t do it without you. I’m probably alive because some group of Navy personnel, right down to the engine crew, kept a ship close and in operating condition. That’s what you did for the soldiers. You stood guard in the Pacific, surely protecting our soldiers in Korea and our allies abroad. If you hadn’t been there, we’d be spread thin. We would have burried many more.

    Thank you for your service. Thank you for keeping us alive. God bless you.

    Jim, Special Forces Retired

  7. Rob    


    I served five years in the U.S. Army during peacetime (1978 to 1983) and another six years in the Army National Guard after my active service. I, too, have struggled with the title of veteran. I even have a cousin who has never served and he doesn’t think I deserve the title because I didn’t serve during a time of war. A Vietnam veteran once told me that my service during a time of peace helped to ensure peace. He said that I didn’t serve with the forethought that war would not break out. He said that I am just as deserving of the title as anyone else who served. I accepted that since it came from a “real” veteran. I now proudly use the title, but I do pay special homage to those whose sacrifice was much greater than mine. For me, there is a distinction and their level of sacrifice demands special recognition. Due to our service, I think you and I recognize that much more than the average citizen who has never served. “Thank you” for your service!

    Rob Johnson
    Veteran, U.S. Army

  8. Tom Mahoney    


    Don’t underestimate yourself, young lady! I can say that at my age.

    I served 4 years in the Coast Guard and spent a year in Vietnam but a Vet is a Vet and your job was no less important than mine. Neither was the Quartermaster’s that did a tour pushing papers at a desk in CONUS. We were all but one cog in the gears of the military. Take out one cog and the machine grinds to a halt.

    Buck up, sailor, stand proud and keep doing what you’re doing.

    Thank you for serving!

    Tom Mahoney
    Coast Guard Sqn.1/Div.13 CatLo, RVN
    WPB-82308 “Pt. White”
    April ’67 – April ’68

  9. John Roane    

    First thank you for your service and like the elderly man whom you spoke of, I am veteran but of Vietnam and have a similar story. Beside my own immediate family no one thank me for my service until after 30 years, when in church a young priest who hadn’t even been born duri8ng Vietnam War thank all the veterans in attendance at Mass and those across the country. Thirty years and from someone who wasn’t even present during that time, it was moving.

    Also keep in mind many living veterans today of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam didn’t volunteer but were drafted under penalty of law. It was into the military or jail. I believe all who served deserve a thank you whether in combat or not. It takes a military to defend the country and we can’t all be lucky enough to serve in combat.

    1. Esteban S. Topasna    

      It’s a very touchy comment you expressed out. Eventhough I didn’t had the chance to go to war in Vietnam (08/1975), but I can still relate to your story. A lot of my relatives fought & died in Vietnam. I didn’t even see them come back to thank. Some I did but others I didn’t. I volunteered after the Vietnam war to continue & protect our freedom. And hope I got drafted earlier to fight. I honor the strength & courage of all that served. Because if not for all of you we won’t be having our freedom & independence. All soldiers that joined to served & protect their country even way back during the time of Pres. Washington & up to now are considered Veterans and needs to be thanked. Cause without them United States won’t be free. So, to all men & women in uniforms, “I SALUTE YOU! And THANK YOU! GOD BLESS EVERYONE!!!

      Esteban S. Topasna ( SFC, US Army, Veteran)
      Resident of Guam

  10. Kenneth Rice    

    Thank you for your service. I am a 30 yr veteran, retiring with rank of Sargent Major.
    I also spent 3years-9months as a POW. I hope you continue to obtain your goals
    in life.

  11. E.W.Curtis    

    Wear the title Veteran with pride. You may have only served 4 years and had the advantage of never having to fire a shot in a combat situation, but you placed yourself in a position to be called upon to do just that very thing. I don’t know the percentage of the population that has served in the military based on total population, however I’m sure it’s not a large percentage. Be thankful that you weren’t called into a war situation and know that you still rise above others just for the willingness to place yourself in a position where you could have. Thanks for your service. We who have served in a combat situation and those who, like you have not but were there ready, appreciate your help. Fair winds and following seas Shipmate.

  12. mitchell rump    

    just because you dind’t see any combat action doesn’t exempt you from being a veteran
    you jointo serve your country were ever it sent you and did your job even if it meant into hostil action so as far as veterans your one of us welcome home and thank you for your service from one veteran to another my service called to Vietnam and i went not that i would have changed anything to do over again but i went ande served just like you SEMPER FI

    Cpl. Rump,M.F. USMC 1968-1974

  13. Dan Decker    

    A veteran is anyone who at some time in his/her life has signed a blank check made out to the United States of America for an amount of up to and including their life. Alison, you went where you were told to go, you did what you were told to do. And you did it in military uniform. You are, indeed, a veteran. Thank you for your service to our country.

    Daniel E. Decker
    TSgt, USAF (Retired)

    1. Tammy    

      I was in the Army from 77-80 and have had a few people tell me that I am not a Veteran.Thankfully in recent years I have been thanked for my time in the service.I have a bumper sticker on my car that says Woman are Veterans and I am on too.A lady at the gas station asked if i was the veteran and then thanked me for my time in the military.

      you did what you were told to do.-How true that was!

  14. Esteban S. Topasna    

    It doesn’t matter whether you served for a year or less, retired or got out early, went to war or not, as long as you served in the military you are considered a veteran. But we need to give a special importance to those who really risked their lives to served & protect our country from hostile enemies. Those soldiers that went to war & died for our freedom. And those wounded soldiers that will never be the same again after what happen before, during, & after the war. I salute all Veterans young & old who joined the military with pride to protect our country. Like you, I didn’t went to war or fire a-single shot to an enemy even though I served for 17 years( 1975-1992 ). But I’m proud to be in the military and in the US Army. And you need to be also. Have a nice day.

    Esteban S. Topasna
    Veteran, SFC, US Army

  15. Ken Marsh    

    Hi Alison

    Thanks for being so honest. I have asked myself the same questions. I did 20 yrs in the Australian Air Force, joining in 67 as a 16 year old apprentice but never saw active service. It took some years for me to accept myself as a veteran. And as for those comments from those who saw active service – much appreciated.

  16. Fred Spellman    

    “They also serve who only stand and wait”.
    John Milton.
    Thank you for your service.

  17. Charles T. Cauthen    

    A Veteran is someone who is lied to, denied,abused by the DVA. We are pawns in a perpuated lie to the US taxpayer by Congress and upper management VA cronies who use the VA money for themselves, a cash cow. The biggest scam ever pulled on the American public. I am a VN combat veteran, you are just as much a vet as I am. Be proud of that, you are part of fraternity that served this country and gave rights to people, who never earned them or deserves them. We Veterans know what service to country is. The rest don’t. You are part of what makes this country Honorable. Not the politicians and the greedy. Veterans are true Americans.

  18. Mary    


    You are a veteran and you should be proud of your service to our country. It doesn’t matter that you were never involved in a combat situation. When you joined the Navy, it was with the understanding that, at any moment, you could be involved in risking your life to defend the rights and freedoms of others. My Dad was in the Navy during WWII, and he served as a teacher, stationed at Treasure Island. He taught the seamen how to direct and fire the big guns on the naval vessels before they were sent off into battle. My Dad never saw combat himself, but his lessons helped those on the battlefront.

    My brother was a Machinist’s Mate on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam war. His first ship sat in dry dock in Bremerton but he was later assigned to a carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin. He, too, never saw combat himself, but his work was responsible for keeping planes in the air, providing for pilot safety, and for maintaining that ship’s much-needed presence in a dangerous area.

    Alison…do not ever, for one minute, think of yourself as not being a veteran! I am proud of you for your service, and I thank you for being willing to lay your life on the line in service to our country!

  19. J.D. Hunnnicutt    

    i served twenty years in teh Navy as a jet engine mechanic. my fondest memeory was when i was aboard a carrier in desert storm and my shipmates and i were paying cards when one guy said can you imagine here we are at war and we are here playing cards. my reply was would you just bid your hand. so even though we werent on the ground or flying missions like the pilots we were all part of the over all experiance.but most importantly don’t sell yourself short.and more importantly thank you for your service. enjoy your civilian life and may you find whatever it is you want to do.

  20. Kathy    

    Thank you. I served 5 years in the Army between 1972 and 1977. When I went through basic women were WAC’s and we didn’t even see a weapon let alone learn to use one. I was a teletype operator attached to a Special Forces Unit, but had to be a secretary since all their communications were tactical and at the time women weren’t deployable. Then I spent about 2 1/2 years at NATO SHAPE headquarters outside of Brussels. While I was there the WAC’s were disbanded and we all became regular Army. Since there were no facilities there to get us all weapons qualified, I never did it.

    People tell me I am not “really” a Veteran because I never saw combat and I was a WAC. In fact I went for years with no health insurance because I thought the VA was only for “real Veteran’s” and not people like me.. Thank you for realizing that once we raise our hand and recite that enlistment oath we are all veterans no matter where or how we serve.

  21. Kris Painter USMC 87-01    


    You are a veteran, just as much as everyone else. In my 13 years of service, I never saw combat either, but I watched, waited, supported, worked, sacrificed and most importantly worried and agonized about the safety and well being of my fellow Marines who were in the Middle East. I cried for their families and prayed they were watching over each other so that they could all return home to those who loved and cared about them. They couldn’t have done that without the support from those of us back in the rear and the families who kept it all together for them so they could concentrate on doing what they needed to do. I married a fellow Marine and experienced many of his deployments and lived the agony of putting up a brave front for our children, who cried for their daddy and also for his family, who needed me to reassure them that he was safe, only to cry and pray alone in the dark.
    We are all veterans and I thank you for your service and sacrifice

  22. Ed    

    Alison, after spending 22 years in the Army, one year of it in Vietnam, I too have had the same feelings. I have even talked to combat veterans that spent a year in the jungle in Vietnam that have the same feeling, “I didn’t go through half of what some of the guys went through” is a quote I have heard several times and I wonder just who then is this real veteran that went through the most? You know the answer, it is all of us that has served. We were all there to do what we were called upon to do, so if it was to go into the jungle, it was done. We all had to be there when orders were handed out. Thank you and every veteran out there for your service.

  23. Michael Goldsmith    

    Dear Sister Veteran,

    I am a veteran of the U.S. Army. I served 11 years on active duty, both in peacetime and war. I served in the first Gulf War, in the U.S. Army Honor Guard, Berlin Brigade and the 101st Airborne, serving on active duty from 1985-1996. You Ma’am, are certainly a veteran and your article reminds me of a conversation I had with my brother, who also is a veteran of the U.S. Navy. The gist of the conversation was about being a hero or a veteran. He felt much the same as you and I feel. How could we bear the title when comparing our service to those who actually saw combat. I like a few that have replied was councelled by those that did. My brother in comparing his service to mine did not see the real point until I showed it to him. The fact that you volunteered and signed the same contract says a lot about your mettle, as so many refuse to serve in any way but expect and reap the benefits of our service.

    My brother felt that because I volunteered for service in Desert Storm that meant I was more of a hero than he was. I replied that he , like you, volunteered to go to war when you signed the contract. The fact that you didn’t serve in a theater of war simply means you were not called upon to do so. It does not mean that you were not ready to. All members of the military who serve lay their lives on the line every day, not just in war zones. Training for war takes lives too. For instance my brother was aboard the U.S.S. Ranger in the early eighties. One deployment to the Gulf of Aquba (Persian Gulf) the ship burned for 3 days in the middle of the Indian Ocean. My brother though not part of ships company (Being that he was a fire control technician for the F-14) volunteered to help fight the fire. Above and beyond his duties and to this day remembers the names of those killed and the numbers of dead and wounded. When I pointed this out to him he understood my point and I hope you do as well. It is not where or when you serve that makes you a veteran, only that you served at all that separates you from your contemporaries who have never served!


    Michael S. Goldsmith, Former Sergeant, Infantry, U.S. Army

  24. cal    

    Thank you for sharing, Allison! Yes, you are a veteran! You joined the military and in doing so, pledged to serve our country, including going to war. I hope every woman in the military reads your post (and every person who believes women are not veterans and/or those who did not actually engage in a battle are not veterans)! Thank you for your service!

  25. Ray Sheely    

    I too have felt the same as Allison. After commissioning in 1970, from Army ROTC, as a 2nd Lt in the Medical Service Corps, my career plans changed. I had looked forward to a significant military career. However, in 1970 something wonderful was about to happen. As many of the bloggers above are aware, VN was “winding down” and President Nixon called for a Reduction in Forces. So, not being Active Duty, I joined the USAR the commander of a detachment of approximately 400 men and women. Later, due to a work reassignment, I left the USAR and settled into a similar position of fewer personnel in the MeNG. The long and short of it is that I was and STILL AM prepared to protect Our country. Yet, I have never even considered myself a veteran. Never even considered marching in a parade to salute the veterans who sacrificed themselves or those in harm-ways now.

    Thank you to all of you above who actually consider people like me as a brother veteran. It’s been lonely and depressing to a man who had a uniform but felt he hadn’t contributed. Again, thank you. I may march with you yet.

  26. Donald Struber    

    All military personnel at anytime can be put in harms way. I was on the east coast stationed on an aircraft carrier 68-69. We chased the Russians, and they chased us. Lives were lost. It was the cold war. I would have gone anywhere the navy sent me. Those of us who wore the uniform ARE VETS !! “Fair winds and following seas !

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