I’d technically been a Veteran since 2005, when I got back from my tour in Iraq, but I certainly never felt like one. It was a label that I hid from and avoided, except when occasionally convenient for me – like when I needed to apply late for financial aid because of my deployment. Even when, on very rare occasions, I called myself a Veteran, I never self-identified as one.
It’s interesting that I didn’t have this feeling when I went to the VA hospital for the first time or when I applied for education benefits. And it didn’t happen when I presented my experiences in Iraq a half dozen times to professors and fellow classmates. Even when talking with my father, who is also a Vet, about my experiences in Iraq, I didn’t feel it. Instead this overwhelming feeling occurred thousands of miles from my then home in Seattle – away from friends, family and most everything I knew.
I came to New York City just a couple weeks before Veterans Day in 2009 to begin work with the nonprofit organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. It was on that Veteran’s Day, the first time I had been around so many fellow vets since my time in Iraq four years earlier, that I finally felt the pride associated with being a veteran. Marching downFifth Avenue with my brothers and sisters in arms to a cheering and supportive crowd will be ingrained inside me forever.
There was always a certain discomfort about being referred to as a vet. For a long time when I got back, especially while I was going to college, I felt very uncomfortable with referring or even considering myself such a term. Being around other Veterans on that first Veterans Day gave me comfort and put me at ease, not only with the term, but with my own experiences.
This is now my third year participating in the New York City Parade. Serving this year as IAVA’s Membership Director, Veterans Day is my opportunity to not just help create a sense of identity for our organization, but help to create a nationwide sense of community amongst our generation of Veterans as a whole. As less then 1% of the population, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are far more isolated than their predecessors. They need to know there are others like them out there and they are not alone.
Each year, we see veterans go through this transformative experience. Some have just gotten back from Iraq or Afghanistan, while some have been back for years. Others travel from just across the Hudson River to take part, and still others take overnight trains from Ohio to be part of the experience of this community. There is something uniquely powerful being surrounded by your fellow Veterans and walking up Fifth Avenue surrounded by supporters, be them family, friends, or complete strangers.
It is the experience of my first Veterans Day that I’m trying to build for IAVA members, whether they’re new to the Parade or returnees. With the upcoming end to the war in Iraq, this Veterans Day is an opportunity for many new Vets to move on to the next step of their life without forgetting where they came from. This should be a powerful and empowering realization. I would encourage everyone in NYC to join us on Friday out on Fifth Avenue to take part in this moving day.
Jason Hansman is IAVA’s Acting Membership Director and responsible for maintaining and growing Community of Veterans, the first and largest social network exclusively for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. A native of Seattle Washington, he deployed to Iraq from 2004-05 with the Army Reserves as a Civil Affairs Sergeant.