How do you thank veterans for their service in a meaningful way that doesn't patronize them or their service?
This is a great question. On Veterans Day, institutions and individuals are going to make some form of attempt to honor veterans for their service. Some will be well received, others will cause great pain. As a veteran, I have been asked only a few times over the years questions concerning how to appropriately acknowledge a veteran without crossing lines. This being one of the most awkward days of the year for so many of us, I felt this would be a good post topic.
What differs between those who are well received and those who cause pain? I say it probably comes down to two motivations: agenda and intent.
For me, and many of my brothers and sisters, we appreciate the notion ... but all too often we get selected out ... and most of us hate to be put on pedestals ... the spotlight belongs on those who can't make it to the parties, celebrations, and recognition events. Making a big to do for the sake of making a big to do has a negative and hurtful effect.
I remember my church, years ago, celebrating Veteran's Day with a presentation from the drama team. In the presentation, the drama team acted as if they were all in a battle and killed holding their post. The drama was very graphic ... it was awful. Most servicemen and women who have spent one minute in a combat or hostile fire zone have no desire to ever relive those experiences again .. yet are forced to in our mind.
The truth is, that drama was all about the people on stage getting their chance to be in a combat-like situation ... it had nothing to do with us. The truth is, most of the Veteran's Day events I have ever been to have mostly been about the organization holding them ... very few have been for the sakes of the veterans as I have seen. One such example of a wonderful Veteran's Day program was held in Lake Charles, LA at the River Front. There is a Garrison Flag that flies on the boardwalk ... they held a community gathering at the flag ... had a great speaker ... and made a general thanks to all who had served. We were there standing among those we served to protect ... and no one knew the difference for the most part. Other Veteran's Day recognitions that are appreciated include services of thanks, the restaurants that offer free meals for vets ... cards ... and the very simple act of thanking a vet for his or her service ... but don't drag that out. There is rarely a conversation that can follow it up. The expression of appreciation is well received ... leave it at that.
It is hard enough try to fit in to the civilian world ... which for most servicepersons will never fully happen ... it becomes even harder when we are singled out when many of the people we work with have a general dislike towards us. If you don't believe me ... well ... For many of us, the greatest pain is the fact that most people have no idea what we did or what it cost us and what it purchased others knowing that if we "flip out" or "lose it" we will be quickly and immediately thrown aside and cast away like a broken tool.
I get thanked a lot ... but I have heard comments for years about how I need to realize that I am now in the real world ... and get over the soldier thing. I don't just tell people I'm a vet ... I've learned that lesson, but people always find out ... the bosses often tell and I do put it on my resume. I have wounds that have adversely affected my body. I need constant medical intervention just to walk. I need to be able to get medical treatment instantly sometimes, just to keep a nominal standard of living. Yet I get flack from coworkers and peripheral staff for leaving a few minutes early to make those appointments. It doesn't matter that I am there usually long before I am supposed to be there. It doesn't matter that I have already arranged for someone to cover me in my absence. It doesn't matter that I have already finished my tasks for the day.
All that matters in that moment is the fact that people will complain about how we should get no special privileges they don't get. Nothing is said of the difference between provision vs privilege. Nothing is thought about how we would trade our needs for those provisions in a minute to have our bodies and health back. Yet those same people once a year want to feel good about themselves by pulling us out of our elements, along with the handful of the other vets (who all know what's going on) and stick us in a small room with some cheap cake and cold coffee ... maybe even a certificate and a small disposable flag. We then get handshakes and "thank yous" from people that are only trying to feel good about themselves and mean little of what they say. So, if we are in a hostile environment, what good is any of the Veteran's Day fluff?
Please ... please ... don't ask for combat stories or seek to know who's killed people, taken lives, or what it felt like to lose a fellow soldier ... those are selfish questions and completely unfair for the soldier. Stay away from anything that would cause the soldier to relive painful experiences.
So what would be helpful?
First, know who your vets are ... and what their needs are ... and provide them the provisions they may need to meet them. None of us want handouts or special treatment ... especially special attention. But we have no choice but to ask if we are not granted what we obviously need. Why should I have to ask for special parking when I walk with a cane? It should be obvious. Why should I have to remind my boss, again, that I can't lift that heavy object or make that long walk only to see the looks on faces ... here the jeers ... the accusations of "milking it" followed by "just kidding." If you hire vets, don't put us in positions to be humiliated. If you will do this alone, then we don't need a day in a year ... you've granted us a working environment that lets us keep our dignity.
Second, make your events inclusive. I encourage groups who desire to acknowledge their veterans to do so by making it an all inclusive event allowing the veterans to be among their peers and coworkers. We don't all like to feel "special" ... what we did was out of duty ... one of the leadership principles of the military is Selfless Service. If you are going to bring in a speaker or host a special event, make it available for the whole company. That leads to my third idea.
Third, provide opportunities for VA issue education for your employees, especially those in leadership or who work alongside vets, who did not serve in the military. We are not wounded children ... but we have experiences ... and many of us reflex reactions for what are typically well protected switches ... but the switches are there. If you are going to specifically hire veterans, it would be good to know what and where those switches may be and stay clear from them. Recent history shows that when a war weary soldier loses the control of his mind, his or her response system and options are much different than a typical person. Though each person is always responsible for his or her own actions, there is a lot that can be done to help those trying to keep things in balance.
We appreciate the thanks ... we appreciate that the fact we served is remembered. If you have no agenda and your intent is good, then most likely you will not cross lines and your acknowledgment will be well received. If you hire veterans so you can get more customers, or you are holding these recognitions so you can improve your standing in the office or community .. do us all a favor and ignore the day. Alternative agendas always show through. Most veterans have more leadership training than just about anybody in the office or management system ... we work quietly and understand how to follow .. but we always know ... and we always compare you to the great (and awful) leaders we served and fought under. Where will you stand in that comparison?
As a final thought, keep in mind that regardless of your ability and mannerism, your veteran employees are probably among the most loyal and faithful of your employees ... though they see you for your strengths and weaknesses ... and see straight through any presentation you may make of yourself ... and still yet choose to serve. Think about that. Be the leader that strives to earn that respect.
That's my take anyways. Happy Veteran's Day!!
Don't be confused. LEARN STUFF!!!
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