Growing up as an Air Force brat with an extensive military heritage, I developed an instinctual appreciation for our nation’s veterans, the battles they fought, and the political conditions under which they fought them. I was still young when I discovered that not everyone finds honoring our veterans so natural.
Those who don’t aren’t (we hope) bad Americans, whose badness manifests twice a year, on Veterans Day and Memorial Day. More likely, they’re just out of practice. Some just don’t know many vets. When around vets they do know, the best time to thank them always seems to be…well…later, instead of in line at the grocery, or at church, or at the gas station. Why? Because although they’re all for honoring vets, their mothers taught them not to talk to strangers, or bother people, or freak people out by getting too personal too fast.
Well, anyone who ever has randomly thanked a veteran knows that these polite excuses don’t carry water. Fortunately, we can conquer our inhibitions (and train our children to conquer theirs) by taking any number of small steps. Many of them are worth initiating on Veterans Day, and most work just as well year round, rain or shine (like our troops).
1. For starters, make sure everyone in your family knows what distinguishes Veterans Day.
You may be surprised by the number of people who confuse this holiday with Memorial Day. On the latter we remember our fallen heroes (although the occasion is a welcome reminder to remember our surviving heroes as well). We have done this in May, in one form or another, since 1868. On Veterans Day, by (partial) contrast, we honor all veterans—including those gone before, but especially those whose sacrifice is ongoing. Ike made the day official in 1954, but the significance of November 11 stretches back to the ceasefire that halted the First World War in 1918, and the first Armistice Day a year later.
Enter a ripe talking point with your kids. If they’re like mine, they know much more about World War II, in which their great-grandfather fought, than the Great War, in which my great-grandfather fought. (His trench-sullied cigarette lighter sits on my windowsill). If you don’t feel equipped to talk with your 5- or 15-year-old about the causes and effects of World War I, never fear. We made November 11 a holiday partly so you can brush up on such things. Take advantage of it.
2. Make phone calls and at least one house call to thank a vet you know.
We’ll return to introverted ways of honoring vets soon enough. Meantime, it is important that while educating yourself and your children unto utmost gratitude, you don’t waste opportunities to execute. If someone in your family has served in the military, swallow your pride, get on the horn, and thank him or her.
“But my family already knows I’m thankful,” you say. I am sure they do, but that is no reason not to thank them again on the day Congress has set aside for the task. After all, our spouses and children know we love them, but we still tell them so repeatedly (or should). If the vet you know is local, herd your kids into the car, drive over, and pop in. You don’t have to stay. Fly-by gratitude goes far. Chances are your gesture will more than compensate for the temporary inconvenience of swinging by unannounced to say thank you.
3. Thank a vet you don’t know.
Some of my favorite stories about my 5-year-old son involve him walking up to elderly, retired servicemen who are wearing hats with insignia, ship names, or other military tells. “Excuse me,” he says. “Did you serve?” Often it takes the veterans a second to find him. “Why, yes, I did,” one says. “Thank you for serving,” says my son. He sticks out his hand and gives his firmest handshake. Sometimes the old, seasoned vet and the young, uninitiated civilian salute each other. Occasionally, the vet thanks my wife (the parent usually around for such exchanges) and chokes back tears.
4. Visit a military-themed memorial or museum during November.
Let’s face it. Veterans Day is here, and some good Americans are totally unprepared to make it meaningful. We’ve all been there. But here is a better plan than waiting until next year for a mulligan: Take a fall field trip. This could be a brief visit with your kids to a local memorial, or a half-day adventure to a museum. For example, the Dayton, Ohio, suburb in which I grew up built a memorial around imported wreckage from the World Trade Center. Obviously, 9/11 and 11/11 aren’t the same. But one hardly needs a primer to see how one informs the other. Dayton natives, by the way, are spoiled by our proximity to the United States Air Force Museum, open 365 days per year, barring federal budget sequesters. We were there Saturday. It never gets old.
You’re likely to find vets at memorials and museums, and you might get one or two good war stories out of them. By their presence, you know they’re in the mood, so just ask.
5. Teach a battle.
Admittedly, this one may require you to step up your game—but parents, by definition, are always up for new challenges. Do you have green army men in the house? Do you have an internet connection? Then you’re all set. A couple hours of late-night reading on your phone is all you need to figure out more than you thought you ever could about battles you have heard about, but not adequately studied: the Siege of Boston (1775-17766), Gettysburg (1863), the Invasion of Normandy (1942). If you’re a nervous novice, start with the Alamo. (Hint: Surround and overwhelm the good guys.) (Hint: Lincoln Logs.) (Admission: My wife’s mother spoiled my son by giving him Texan vs. Mexican troops, complete with Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and Santa Anna. She also baked him an Alamo-shaped cake. You don’t need to do this.) Unless you have outlawed toy guns in your home—and even if you have—your kids are going to be playing Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, which will eventually become Superheroes vs. Supervillains. Why not add real life heroes and villains to the mix?
This last suggestion for making the most of Veterans Day does not involve thanking a vet. But it does aim at creating a family culture of remembering and appreciating our nation’s military history and heroes. Every veteran I know views cultivating this memory and appreciation as a high form of thanks.