One hundred and five years ago, at the 11th minute of the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month, the guns went silent in a devastated landscape far from home. The Great War, the "War to end All Wars", was over; to be replaced in a scant 20 years by a "greater" war that would eliminate another estimated 50 million people around the world.
The history of our young nation is inextricably linked with conflict in nearly every corner of the globe. Which means that each generation of America's young people will be the ones who answer a call from well-dressed leaders who make big decisions about wars, deployments and other military actions. Those who have served in combat and their families know that at any point their country might cash that blank check they have written. Many return home bearing invisible wounds from that service and sacrifice that the rest of us can't possibly know or understand.
Behind our house are two historic black churches and their graveyards. This sunny Veterans Day morning small American flags flutter in the breeze, carefully marking the final resting place of veterans whose service is known. Many of them fought in the Great War, or the Second World War, writing that same blank check even though they were not fully franchised in the American dream. And yet each still believed in the promise of that dream enough to step forward when the call came.
I am fortunate that my musical life makes it possible for me to give a small healing something back to a few veterans. While it feels like a drop in an ocean considering how many vets come home bearing heavy burdens of PTSD and other emotional traumas, for each of those vets in that time it seems to lighten their burden considerably for a little while. I consider it sacred work; that hopefully helps each of them heal away from the risk of becoming part of that tragic "22 vets a day" statistic. Each time I do one of these retreats, I find my head filled and busy thinking for the next several days; about the notion of service, and sacrifice, and serving up to the point of life itself for a set of noble ideals that quite honestly, we're still struggling to bring fully into measure.
So, what if EVERY day was Veterans Day? Where those of us from across the political spectrum joined together to pay back that day to our veterans - to ensure that the VA is properly funded and staffed, that all get access to the physical and emotional healing resources they need, and that every day every veteran knows our gratitude for their service by our actions as a nation rather than a few days of words and memes. They stood up for us - American values and the rule of law, our Constitution, our "one nation indivisible with liberty for all". How might we overcome some of our deep differences to stand up for them now - together?
And what if this anniversary date that the shooting and shelling stopped - this Armistice Day - we also dedicate ourselves to working for peace? That we stop asking each generation of those young people just starting their adult journey through life to take a bullet or a shell so we can sit back and be comfortable in our lives, many of us warrioring away at our keyboards tilting at windmills. What could that look like? What SHOULD that look like? What if we backed up our gratitude for their service and sacrifice with real actions and sufficient resources instead of just words? And most especially, to do the hard and complicated work towards all people having physical and economic security.
It's never been more complicated, and it certainly feels like the world is on fire. But today as I say "thank you for your service," and acknowledge the memory and sacrifice of ALL who wore the uniform (including many of my ancestors and many more in my wife's family), it is time to ask myself, "what can I do to help prevent this great and imperfectly evolving nation from NEEDING so many to sacrifice in the future?" It seems like a mighty worthy goal, even if unlikely to be achieved in our lifetimes. Their service has given us so much privilege, for little in return. I will not ask the work of others but simply demand it of myself, but I'd also gladly welcome companions in the cause of peace.
To each and every one who served on my behalf, thank you. I will try to better honor what you and your family have given to me and mine.
American flags mark the final resting place of veterans, Mt. Olive Baptist Church and Grace Methodist Episcopal Church (below), Lincoln VA