General Douglas MacArthur was quoting an old British ballad during his 1951 farewell address before Congress when he said:
“Old soldiers never die – they just fade away.”
Sadly, both old and young soldiers die every day. Each death diminishes us all, with each man or woman taking with them a reservoir of history and unique experience. We stand on their shoulders, enjoying relative peace and freedom today because so many gave their lives in times of war – and worked to keep the peace after the fighting stopped.
According to recent data, there are approximately 19 million veterans in the United States today – a steep decline from past years. While 18% of the population had served in the military back in 1980, that number hovers at just 7% today.
The consequences of that shift are felt in numerous ways – from a waning of selflessness, sacrifice and patriotic fervor to a diminished appreciation and empathy for those currently tasked with defending our nation.
I’ve never had the privilege of wearing the uniform, but I’ve had and have the pleasure of knowing many men and women who did and do.
Veterans hold a special place in our hearts and memories. What do you think of when your mind turns to those who make up the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard?
I think of guts and gumption – bravery and courage. I think about long days and lonely nights – holding watch in a storm on an aircraft carrier or trudging through a hot, windswept desert in the Middle East.
Our veterans put their lives on the line for very little compensation and even less credit. Each one is an individual with unique gifts and talents, hopes and dreams – and yet they so often served invisibly as part of a group in a battalion or squadron. If they did their job, few knew their name. If something went wrong for one, little else went right for everyone else.
Many veterans gave their best years to America, especially physically. It’s not easy on the body to serve in the military. Even training has its risks, as men and women are pushed to the brink in order to be ready when the pressure is on and the rubber bullets become real.
I think about how hard it must be to make friends and then lose them in war and wonder why them and not you. Good soldiers are good at compartmentalizing, but they’re human – and their hearts hurt like yours and mine when the bad overwhelms the good.
When I look at a lineup of veterans, I try and see beyond the medals and even the monuments that represent them – and think of the families left behind at home. Marriage is hard enough in peace and in civilian life. Add the dueling pressures of dangerous deployments and all types of vices and temptations, and many marital unions are pushed to the brink.
Boys and girls are proud of their soldier dads and moms – but truth be told, they just want their dads and moms safe and at home.
We’re also currently in the throes of a terrible veteran suicide pandemic. Veterans commit suicide at 1.5 times the rate of non-veterans. Post-traumatic stress syndrome is real, and we need to be mindful and aware, keeping an eye out for clues and cues. There is help available.
When it comes to Veterans Day, Jesus’ words ring true: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Every veteran pledged to just that if necessary.
If you see a veteran, I hope you’ll thank them. Write a note. Give a gift. Express your appreciation.
Even better – please join me in praying for them and ask the Lord to bless them for their service and sacrifice.