I entertained an interesting thought experiment the other day: If I had been 22 years old on 9/11, a recent graduate of Stanford University, would I have raised my hand and volunteered to enlist in the U.S. military in defense of a nation that had just been attacked? Abandoned my comfortable lifestyle at a decent entry-level job?
I imagine not. And I imagine many of us still wouldn’t today. But there were those who did. And there are those who still do. And so, for me, next Monday carries a special personal significance as I progress through my senior year and reach a point where some of my peers continue to raise their hands and elect to pursue a career defined by personal sacrifice.
Next Monday is Veterans Day, an opportunity to thank those men and women who have served in the U.S. military. It would seem, however, that Americans, and young people in particular, have a hard time relating to veterans, let alone celebrating them, and for good reason.
Our culture today increasingly portrays veterans as a group of mostly conservative, uneducated, ornery white men afflicted by a variety of mental illnesses and unemployment. While problems such as mental illness and veteran unemployment are real, the stereotypes they perpetuate do not present an accurate illustration of the veteran population as a whole, which is made up of countless groups that together are representative of the United States; students and professionals, gays and straights, immigrants and 10th generation Americans, liberals and conservatives. Only through meeting veterans, both at Stanford and off campus, can the existing misperceptions of veteran identity be changed.
Beyond the cultural stereotypes, domestic politics have made it even more difficult to relate to the veteran population. The politicization of war has had unfortunate spillovers into our civilian views of veterans, as people increasingly and erroneously place the responsibility for war on servicemembers themselves, failing to dissociate the policy maker from the public servant whose only commitment is to the defense of a country, not to a particular figure.
As I’ve come to realize in the past few years, you don’t have to be pro-war to be pro-military. And you need not endorse a war’s mission to honor those who made sacrifices in the course of it. Indeed, no one can provide greater cautions about the dangers of war than those who have borne its personal costs. Again, only through meeting members of the veteran community can we begin to understand their role in society and see them not as subjects of a political debate but rather as paragons of service.
For these reasons and more, as civilians we must make a concerted effort to engage our peers who are veterans. And so, on behalf of the Haas Center’s Military Service as Public Service Program, I would like to invite all readers to our annual Veterans Day Event on Monday, Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. at the Clark Center Lounge, immediately following a talk by Prof. David Kennedy on Stanford’s colored history with Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC), also located at the Clark Center.
Whether this is the first time you are cognizant of Veterans Day’s existence or you come from a military background, I urge you to come discover why Veterans Day is for us all, particularly civilians.
On Memorial Day this May we will mourn the loss of those servicemembers who are no longer with us to share their stories of service. And so on Veterans Day let us be grateful for the ones we still have around us, young and old, and join in thanking them for the thankless commitment they made however many years ago to serve a nation, humbly and with no ambition of their own.
Matthew Colford, Class of 2014, is a student coordinator for Haas Center’s Military Service as Public Service program, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org