HARPER: Honor the soldier this Veterans’ Day

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In my storied career as a national holiday enthusiast, Veterans’ Day never ranked high on my list. I always consented to a moment of silence during the 11th hour of the 11th day of November and offered a prayer in hope that soldiers serving at that time would remain safe.

But because of the volatile nature of the debate surrounding the Iraq War, as well as the fact no one close to me ever fought overseas, it was difficult for me to appreciate the level of sacrifice veterans make.

This year is different.

Because I have paid my academic dues, my senior year has afforded me the opportunity to take electives that are more interesting than the science and math prerequisites Marquette inexplicably thinks will help me land a job. One of these electives, Narrative Nonfiction Reporting, requires students to pick a topic to cover for the entire semester, submitting a chapter that explores a different component of the subject each week.

Veterans seemed like a logical choice. With the VA Medical Center, the Milwaukee County War Memorial and countless other services in the area, I knew I would never be short of resources and people to talk to. More importantly, there are few, if any, subjects more dramatic than war. I figured interviewing people who had seen combat would be incredibly enlightening both as a journalist and as a human being.

I was right.

In the past two months, I have met some of the most inspiring people I have ever encountered and had the opportunity to hear the stories of why they entered the military, what their service was like and what they have experienced since returning home.

Some of the stories are surprisingly amusing. A veteran who now works at the VA hospital said one of his worst military experiences was seeing Toto play “Africa” twice at a 4th of July concert. Another veteran who worked in reconnaissance during the Cold War explained that the inaccuracy of urine tests in the 1980s meant her time serving in Germany was “pretty much a six-year party.”

Other stories, however, are more somber.

A music therapist at the VA hospital told me about the difficulty of working with veterans who have attempted suicide.

An Iraq War veteran showed me a photo he took of other soldiers tightly embracing at a memorial service for a young NYPD officer who was killed by a sniper in Iraq.

A Vietnam veteran handed me an article about a man who will soon be awarded the Medal of Honor for his brave efforts to prevent Taliban fighters from stealing the body of a fatally wounded American soldier.

Though every person I have spoken with has had a distinct collection of experiences, there are consistent themes in their stories. All of the veterans I’ve interviewed have returned from their life-altering experiences overseas to shockingly normal existences at home. One works at a karaoke bar, another volunteered for a political campaign and another takes photography classes at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

In addition, none of the people I’ve met offer blanket statements or bottom line opinions about the military. More than anyone else, they understand there are no easy answers to explain war.

At last weekend’s annual Milwaukee Veterans’ Day Parade, I saw a shirt that read “Honor The Soldier, Not The War.” Though the majority of us will never serve in the military, we are free to express our opinions about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq or wherever else without facing significant consequences.

No matter what our views are, we should strive this Veterans’ Day to focus on the soldiers, not the war, and to remember that we owe much of our freedom to the veterans who put themselves in harm’s way to protect us.

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