During a trip back to my hometown last week, I had the honor of speaking to a talented group of Veterans at the University of South Florida (USF)’s annual Veterans Week celebration. Reflecting on my time there — almost 30 years ago — I now realize it was perhaps the most formative time of my life and greatly prepared me for the challenges I would face ahead in ways I could not anticipate or appreciate at the time.
I am a new veteran; most people who know me, know that I only recently retired from the U.S. Navy about six months ago. So, this Veteran’s Day has a new meaning for me.
But my ties to the U.S. military and the broader veteran community run much deeper than my own personal experiences. My grandfather served on a battleship in World War I. My father served aboard an aircraft carrier in the 1950’s and was adamant that my brothers and I continue the tradition. The draft may have ended in 1973, but conscription continued in the Kirby household.
The list of my family’s military ties goes on. My wife was a naval officer whose parents were naval officers. Our son is also in the Navy and our daughter married a naval officer whose father and grandfather also served in the Navy. I think you get the idea; we’re sort of a Navy family. I, like many veterans, was inspired to join by a well-founded tradition of public service.
That is why it was a personal honor for me to go back to my alma mater and speak with today’s generation of student veterans, many of whom have grown-up in a time of great uncertainty and danger. And many of whom have known nothing but war their entire adult lives. In the aftermath of September 11th, these young Veterans made the brave choice to serve.
Never before has our country gone to war in this way, for this long, or with an all-volunteer force of men and women who could just as easily have done nothing, sat it out, or let others go. These brave men and women represent the one percent of the American population who serves on active duty today, a small percentage of the population who tend to serve in deployments time and time again. If that trend continues, we run the risk of the military becoming increasingly disconnected from the very society it aims to protect.
While I know the American people appreciate and value the sacrifices of their veterans, I worry they do not know or sufficiently understand their veterans. How could they possibly? There is no draft, rationing, and there are no blackouts or curfews. The wars the United States now fights, though long, are relatively small in scope and size and are far away from our shores.
Given this reality, the veteran community has a special opportunity to bridge the divide, close the seams, and to foster understanding. They can help be the vital link between Americans and their military, just as they have been a vital link between Americans and other communities around the world. In support of missions abroad we have learned Farsi, Arabic, and Pashto; sat cross-legged in shura and tribal councils; partnered, mentored, and shared hardships with fighting men and women from a vast array of cultures as we battled common enemies together.
For generations veterans have prided themselves on knowing “hearts and minds,” but we must strive to extend the same courtesy to our neighbors and to our fellow Americans. We come from them and inevitably return to them, but once we leave our insular military organization, we can and should make a stronger effort to know and understand them.
It is clear veterans have an important role to play in helping close the civil-military gap in our society. We can do this by opening the channel to a healthy conversation about our military. We can also do that by sharing stories about ourselves or by sharing the stories of our fellow veterans and fallen heroes. We can even share stories about the time we learned a new skill, a leader who showed us a new way, a problem we solved or a partner we saved.
Stories are a powerful tool, and we should leverage them more in the veteran community, because they teach valuable lessons and spread empathy. That empathy can go a long way toward promoting understanding and creating solutions to the problems our veterans face today. More importantly, the stories of our veterans preserve the rich legacy of the American military experience, so that future generations of decision-makers, voters, and families benefit. Our stories of heroism, sacrifice, and leadership demonstrate veterans’ value to the society they rejoin and make more evident to society the value of the millions of veterans who will follow.
We have served our country; we can serve it still.
On this veteran’s day I encourage all my fellow veterans to feel empowered to share their stories. Let us represent openness, not aloofness as we aim to get to know our fellow citizens the way we know each other. Let us remember, that to the degree there is a civil-military gap in this country, we veterans share an equal burden in closing it. By sharing our great stories with our fellow citizens, they learn more about the value and potential of our veterans, but most importantly about the real demands — the true costs — of safeguarding national security.
Thank you to all American veterans for your service to a grateful nation; because of you and your families, I am proud to call myself a veteran.
About the Author: John Kirby serves as the U.S. Department of State Spokesperson.