A young girl touches the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC

commentary

(U.S. News & World Report)

November 11, 2015

Honor Veterans Day by Learning Veterans' Stories

A young girl touches the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC

Photo by Paige Roberts/Fotolia

by Paula G. Thornhill

The stories of two veterans profoundly changed my philosophy on Veterans Day. Previously, I considered it a time to reflect. Now, I also see it as an amazing opportunity to learn. These two vets served 30 years apart. One was a member of World War II's greatest generation, the other a member of the disdained Vietnam generation. The World War II vet, a blue-collar worker, is deceased; the Vietnam veteran, a world-renowned scientist, remains at the top of his profession. A little over a year ago, both were unknown to me — this Veterans Day I'd like to share their stories and thank them for the voyage of discovery on which they took me.

I met the World War II vet posthumously through his daughter. Last Veterans Day, I asked her, in passing, if her father was a vet. She replied yes, he'd served in World War II. I asked her what he did during the war — she didn't know; where had he served — she didn't know; what service was he in — she didn't know. To her great regret, her revered father never once spoke about his wartime service. She knew absolutely nothing about this period in his life except for his rank, because it was inscribed on his memorial marker.

Curious, I asked if I could see what I could uncover about his service. I spent the next year finding, and then getting to know, her father. I discovered a talented Army noncommissioned officer who had moved through Europe with the 12th Armored Division. He had come under fire in Central Europe, helped capture some enemy soldiers, served in the postwar occupation force and assisted Polish displaced persons. He left the Army after he returned from Germany and stepped back into civilian life. He had served his country, competently and honorably, and then left the military behind him. Everyone back home knew he had served, but for some reason he never shared his wartime experiences.

I met the World War II vet posthumously through his daughter. Last Veterans Day, I asked her, in passing, if her father was a vet. She replied yes, he'd served in World War II. I asked her what he did during the war — she didn't know; where had he served — she didn't know; what service was he in — she didn't know. To her great regret, her revered father never once spoke about his wartime service. She knew absolutely nothing about this period in his life except for his rank, because it was inscribed on his memorial marker.

Curious, I asked if I could see what I could uncover about his service. I spent the next year finding, and then getting to know, her father. I discovered a talented Army noncommissioned officer who had moved through Europe with the 12th Armored Division. He had come under fire in Central Europe, helped capture some enemy soldiers, served in the postwar occupation force and assisted Polish displaced persons. He left the Army after he returned from Germany and stepped back into civilian life. He had served his country, competently and honorably, and then left the military behind him. Everyone back home knew he had served, but for some reason he never shared his wartime experiences.

Two vets from two different wars, who served under different circumstances, both silent about their experiences. What a loss. They represent qualities that we admire so much in our citizens — duty and service. Their experiences also remind us that the military can be a great social leveler. These two men would have thought nothing of serving in the same unit despite disparities in education and social status. In the civilian world, their paths would never have crossed.

This Veterans Day, we should all ask questions of each other — did you serve in the military? If so, what was your service, what was your rank, what did you do, what was your funniest experience? If not, was it by choice, out of protest, something that never occurred to you? Did you serve in another way? The answers to these questions matter deeply to all of us. Veterans Day is a time to reflect, but it is also a time to help veterans like these two men find their voices, so we can collectively find ours as a nation. We can't afford to hold our veterans at arm's length. We need to learn from them and see them for who they are — an essential part of our nation and ourselves.


Paula G. Thornhill is a retired USAF brigadier general and a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

This commentary originally appeared on U.S. News & World Report on November 11, 2015. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.