I have this terrible habit of getting sucked into social media on Veterans Day. Most of my friends are veterans or still in the military, and I like to see the old pictures they post and the articles they write and share. It’s fun, and it’s a reminder that a small community of like-minded people is out there.
And then I saw this gem from the master of lists, BuzzFeed: 18 Tear-Jerking Moments of Soldiers Reuniting With Their Dogs.
I once heard someone say there are two things all Americans love: puppies and veterans. And there you have it, in some ungodly union, Veterans Day is turned into just more fodder for listicles.
It’s disturbing, and it’s part of this larger trend of packaging the soldier’s homecoming experience as something to be distractedly digested by a reality television-obsessed public.
Switch on the television and you’ll be sure to find a “news” segment depicting a viral-ready video of a freshly returned combat veteran being reunited with his or her (mostly his) family. Bonus points if it’s a surprise. Extra bonus points if it is at a child’s school or ball park. The scene has been repeated so often, these televised and expertly cut reunions now have a formula. They’ve been around for a few years, the natural byproduct of the emergence of social media, an entertainment industry rabidly addicted to “reality programming,” an American public largely removed and ignorant of the lives of its military men and women, and a forever war.
As the reunion segment unfolds, if we’re lucky, we’ll get some background information on the soldier—where he served, what he did. Usually, there is no story telling us who the soldier is, just the image of a uniformed person. One story fits all. We don’t want to know, we just want to feel good.
Then, as the soldier and family member see one another, there is the initial look of surprise, the slight pause, and then the emotional explosion of excitement and relief as they rush to embrace, camera zooming in tightly to catch closed eyes and garbled breathing, the producer hoping to catch a single streaming tear. Some acoustic guitar and then a fade to black. Then the news will probably end—reunions are a great way to close out a news hour. It leaves people feeling good.
Yes, America loves a spectacle. The reunion video is the flash-in-the-pan segment that puts a nice bookend on the war story. Soldier goes to war, fights, comes home. Instant catharsis as tears are shed on cue. Done.
But in the real world of veterans returning from war, the story doesn’t end after the tearful reunion and excited drive home. When the endorphins recede, replaced with exhaustion and anxiety, what’s left is a guy sitting in a strange living room wondering where the old furniture went.
He will struggle in the days and weeks ahead trying to fit back into a routine that moved on without him and got along just fine. He’ll get frustrated at people he thinks should be doing things a certain way, things that seem so obvious and easy—because hey, at least you’re not getting shot at.
Monday was Veterans Day: “A celebration to honor America's veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.”
It’s a confusing holiday. Not everyone gets off work, and unless you live in a city with a big parade, there really isn’t anything special that happens to let you know it’s here.
“Didn’t we just have Veterans Day?”
“No, that was Memorial Day.”
“Oh. What’s the difference?”
If you’re still in the military, not overseas at war and not on duty, you might be lucky enough to enjoy a long weekend—playing Call of Duty, probably. If you’re a veteran who has separated from the military, you might have the day off, if you have a job, that is.
And if you’re a civilian? That’s tough. You might thank a veteran if you know one, which you probably don’t outside of that one crazy high school teacher, as less than 1 percent of the population serves in the military. Or you might post something on Facebook or Twitter that demonstrates that you care. Maybe one of those reunion videos. Or a stream of GIFs showing soldiers and their dogs.
Me, I’m writing this article. I really don’t like writing Veterans Day or Memorial Day pieces. I’ve done it before. It’s easy to get sappy and sentimental. I’ve been a veteran for more than 10 years now, and it is an identity that is never more than a few seconds from my mind. It’s ever-present and inescapable. To anyone I’ve ever known, I’m now “the Army guy.”
That’s fine. I like that. I chose it. But as someone who writes about veterans and war, I can grow, too. I’ve moved past that stage where I put on display what others want it to mean, what’s comfortable for them.
The fact is, military service is hard and war is terrible. Those two things, separately or together, result in lifelong changes to those who experience them and responsibilities to the republic who enlists them. There is no dramatic conclusion that ends the saga. It lasts until the very end.
For all that is gained through military service—training, discipline, leadership, loyalty—there are pitfalls that also must be traversed whether one stays in or chooses to go back to the civilian world. Each veteran faces a unique journey, some upward bound, utilizing the skills honed in service to make the world a better place, like the veterans of the disaster-response organization Team Rubicon, which just sent a team to assist with disaster relief in the Philippines. Others will spend the rest of their lives battling devastating physical injuries or trying to come to terms with what they did at home or overseas.
War and homecoming are not spectacles to be reveled in through a videogame console or a YouTube video of a reunited family. They don’t end when the bullets stop or the cameras cut. As nice as it is to watch a nameless soldier reunite with his family, that warm feeling deep in our heart doesn’t absolve us from the collective responsibility we hold to ensure that we keep caring long after that precious moment ends and the long walk begins.