Thoughts on Veterans Day



By Mel Mann       

We are on the verge of Veteran’s Day and as a veteran it brings to the surface a number of thoughts. During my lifetime I have seen the public perception of veterans, the military and patriotism go through some extreme cycles. There is likely no better time to try and share some insights into these things and hopefully educate or inform just a little, those among us who have never put on a uniform.

I was a soldier, I never went to war, but I am considered a veteran and feel a unique bond with all those who have also put on the uniform of their country. The closest I came was sitting in an Air Force troop transport at the end of a runway at 2:00 AM with all my insurance forms updated. The Presidential order did not happen and I did not have to go to Angola.

During my senior year of high school in the spring of 1975 I signed a deferred enlistment contract with the Army. The contract was for me to start active duty in September of 1975. When I informed my father of the enlistment he stopped talking to me for about 2 weeks. In retrospect, I can understand my father’s frustration. The Vietnam war was winding down, but America had lost over 58,000 young men including some who had been neighbors growing up.

My father had raised all his children with a strong focus on education and the expectation that college after high school was simply a pre-established next step. My grades were good enough to get into college, it simply was not something I wanted to do right away. With the country transitioning to an all-volunteer military the recruiters were seeking out high school seniors. I don’t want to imply that I was following some patriotic fervor, I enlisted because it was a path towards doing something after high school besides college or a menial job. I also felt a need to leave my folks home where I seemed to be the center of many of the conflicts.

For me, it is easy to recognize most veterans, at least those from the Army or Marines. All of us learned a unique style of “shoulders back” walking with our eyes up and arms swaying, some call it marching. I still remember the drill sergeant during basic training yelling the cadence “ain’t no use in looking down, ain’t no discharge on the ground.” Strange how these things stick in your mind more than 40 years later.

During my 4 years of active duty I learned a great deal. I am not talking about the specific skills of being a soldier or as a construction engineer which was my assigned role. I learned to be part of a team, to follow when told to and step up to lead when no one else was in a position to lead. I learned the importance of looking out for my teammates and a trust that they are looking out for me. For those who have never worn the uniform there is an important concept to be understood here. In that worst case of all situations, combat: It is critical that each soldier know that their fellow soldiers “have their back.” Without the trust amongst soldiers that this is taking place, an army will likely crumble in the face of battle. This lesson begins in basic training when everyone gets punished because one person’s bunk was not well made. Before long, each of us is helping the other make their bunk. Without repressing individuality, this mindset carries over to all aspects of military life. Military service ended for me many decades ago, but this is still an integral part of how I conduct myself and I can easily recognize it in others.

Serving in the military had its unique challenges in the post-Vietnam era. The public view was that we were all war mongers. The official guidance from our leadership at that time was to wear civilian clothes when off base and not on duty to avoid conflict. This era was also the beginning of America’s volunteer professional army. Most of my fellow soldiers had no place else to go after high school, only a few were like me and consciously made that choice despite having other options. Uniquely, I served with a couple of people who signed enlistment contracts to avoid to going to jail, what we called the “bailiff or recruiter choice.” 

I am proud of my time in uniform, but when my 4 years were up I left active duty and went to college by personal choice and not based on an imposed family expectation. Despite my pride in service, I learned that it was not good to mention in conversation that I had been in the military. I was either jeered at, or on occasion lectured about how the “country was going to hell” and somehow I was “uniquely qualified to understand.” The second type of person often wanted to show me their basement filled with a collection of small arms thinking I would appreciate it. With the sour taste of Vietnam still fresh in the public memory, military service was not generally understood or respected.

It is difficult to be proud of a portion of your life that you are discouraged from talking about or admitting to. The mindset is similar to having a job on your resume that encourages people to pre-judge you in a negative manner.

The U.S. military’s public standing improved some with our incursions into Panama and Granada, but the first Gulf War of 1990-1991 changed everything. For the first time in my lifetime, being an active member military, or a veteran in my case became a respected role. 

For most of my professional life Veteran’s Day has been one of many holidays that was on the calendar, but not observed by my employer. I understand that businesses need to pick and choose which days to give as holidays and which to ignore. There are simply too many holidays to get them all off and still be a profitable business. Nevertheless, Veteran’s Day has always been important to me. Since I entered the workforce in 1982, I have always used a day of vacation for this date if it fell on weekday. Heck, it’s called “Veteran’s Day” since I’m a veteran it should be my day to be off work. 

Unlike Memorial Day which honors those who have given their life in combat for their country, Veteran’s Day is a salute to all who have put on the uniform. Originally established as “Armistice Day” on November 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the end of World War I. The holiday has evolved into a tribute to all soldiers from all conflicts. President Eisenhower officially changed the name to Veterans Day in 1954. Great Britain, France, Canada and Australia all commemorate the veterans of the two World Wars on Remembrance Day (the second Sunday of November). It is also common in those same countries to observe two minutes of silence at 11 am every November 11th. The guns of WWI went silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

Our country has changed a great deal in my lifetime. In 2006, while attending a National meeting for executive volunteers of a youth sports program (AYSO) I experienced something totally new to me. The meeting began with asking all veterans in the room to stand while a video tribute to the services was played; I found it a surprisingly emotional experience.

I was never placed in a combat environment, so I cannot personally relate to the experiences that many of our veterans have, but I have tremendous respect of what they have been through. The media often points to homeless or emotionally challenged veterans to somehow paint all veterans with the same brush. The challenges that these people go through putting one set of life experiences behind them as they transition into the civilian world can be daunting, but they represent a minority. Most veterans upon leaving the service successfully integrate into the civilian world. Nevertheless, I can still spot most veterans….they walk a little taller with their shoulders back, they seem to thrive is stressful situation, they don’t shy from making decision and they understand what it means to be part of a team.

It is my belief that most veterans did not join up for some great patriotic cause, they were more like me and just looking for another option or path at that time in their life. That path has taken them through training and experiences that few people outside the military can really appreciate or relate to. That training and experience has now become a permanent part of who they are. Regardless of the service branch, there is an indelible imprint left on the psyche and soul of each soldier, sailor, Marine and airman.

On Veterans Day there are opportunities for service veterans to get free meals at Applebee’s, Denny’s, Red Lobster and a host of others brands. Many businesses offer other freebie’s or discounts to vet’s including haircuts, oil changes and discounted tickets. It is nice to live long enough to see this public outpouring of support for service veterans. For years it was important that I hide my years of service despite my pride in that part of my life. Now, I know that millions of veterans just like me did something right and something we can be proud of.

Mel Mann currently works as a software developer as well as dappling in playing the blue grass banjo.

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William Hicks
William Hicks
2 years ago

As a Vietnam Combat Veteran, I was on the receiving end of venom from those who didn’t serve. No need for detail, how they spread that venom.

After the shock of how the world had turned upside down during my extended tour from 1966 through a portion of 1968, I determined to not allow myself to be a victim, or be treated as one.

I too, have strengths that were nurtured during my time in the military; I would only be duplicating Mr. Manns statements by listing them.

All-in-all, there were many life lessons learned during combat. The one that I’ve had since then, is a higher value in life, and how fragile it really is.