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Prairie Lives: ‘I didn’t do anything special’

I recently had a conversation with a Wood Lake resident who read my columns about Kenny Schmidt’s Navy service. He thanked me for sharing Kenny’s story and commented, “I had known him for decades and never knew any of that about his time in the Navy.”

I have heard similar observations many times over the years I’ve been interviewing and writing about military veterans’ service. Sometimes the person sharing that observation with me is the veteran’s own spouse or children.

With this column I hope to help us better understand why many, perhaps most, veterans tend to keep their service experiences close.

“I didn’t do anything special,” is a common response to questions about a veteran’s time in uniform. The great majority of veterans I’ve interviewed described their service that way. They are proud of their service and often view it as a transformative time in their life, yet are often guarded about sharing it.

Military veterans may be reluctant to talk about service experiences for a number of reasons.

First, they may be concerned that talking about their service might be misunderstood as bragging or attention-seeking. Few want attention in that way and they certainly don’t want others to think they are bragging.

Whether they volunteered or were drafted, their service involved a desire or the necessity to serve our country. Either way, they see their service as part of their citizenship — something they either wanted or needed to do.

Another reason for veterans’ reluctance to share their service story may be that the military emphasizes teamwork. Our training hammers home the lesson that our military service members serve as a team. Each member of the team meets their responsibilities and, by doing so, helps others accomplish their responsibilities to ensure the team’s overall success. Each member is cross-trained to be able to take other’s responsibilities, if necessary. Within months of reporting to a duty station, we found ourselves teaching new arrivals how to accomplish their tasks as a member of the team. These lessons in the critical importance of teamwork come early and often.

We bring this team concept home with us when we hang up the uniform. This deep-seated team concept reminds us our service achievements were usually the result of others helping us in a team effort. This lesson can be difficult to explain to others and discourages talk that brings attention to one’s self, rather than to the team.

Service members’ motivation to serve our country and their teamwork ethic create a strong sense of “I was just doing my part.” Veterans don’t want to make a “big deal” out of their service because they see it as something that was necessary and that they only accomplished in concert with many other soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines.

Finally, there is the special case of our combat veterans. War is a horrific experience for those who must pull the trigger, those who must protect themselves from enemy weapons, and those who must deal with the destructive consequences of combat.

There is an awful lot of bad that comes with combat experience or the consequences of combat. It may seem to combat veterans that there is no easy place to begin sharing such experiences, nor words that can properly explain them. They may be concerned about what others may think of them, if they try to explain their combat experience. They may be reluctant to even revisit horrific or tragic memories. Many looked for a closed place inside themselves to store those memories. Sometimes the memories stay there and sometimes they don’t.

Our Vietnam veterans bear a special burden. Too many in our nation rejected not only on the decision-makers responsible for our Vietnam policy, but also the troops whose oaths and duty required them to serve policy decisions they did not make.

So there are many reasons why veterans of military service may be reluctant to talk about their service. But it is important for us to know of their service and to recognize the necessity and honor of that service.

Our nation has always depended on its citizens’ willingness to accept the risks and limitations that accompany military service in war and peace. The burden of that service most often falls on our young people.

Our military personnel take an oath to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution. Their chain of command runs to the President, but their service is to the nation — to us.

They do not make policy, nor do they choose whether to go to war. Rather, they offer their service and trust that those who make war decisions make wise and good decisions. Our young people in uniform and their leaders must then carry out those decisions.

Military service is special because it involves giving up some of our freedoms in order to serve the nation. Military service is special because it involves denying some of our individual interests in order to serve as a team, acting on behalf of the nation.

Military service is special because it involves accepting the risk of being sent into harms way on our behalf.

So when a military veteran tells you they didn’t do anything special, realize all the reasons they may be reluctant to talk about their service. Let them know you respect their service and that it is important to you. Ask if they would be willing to tell you more about it so that you can better understand how they served us when they were in uniform.

Be sure to thank them for their service. They did something special.

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