What Bothers Me About Veterans 'Day'
Even though Veterans Day falls in the middle of football season, I spent the day watching baseball. Aidan, my oldest son, had a weekend tournament in Rocky Mount - a 90 minute drive from our home in Cary, North Carolina. We had to arrive at the sports complex on Sunday morning for full day of scheduled games. I didn’t expect that we would return home until well after sunset. I know nothing about baseball, but watching Aidan play is among the best privileges I enjoy as a father. Therefore, I didn't mind committing a day to baseball that I would have otherwise spent lounging around the house watching football.
When the first game ended in the early afternoon, we had enough time to visit a local restaurant for a late lunch before the next contest. During most tournaments, we usually settled for junk food from the concession stand or fast food given the time constraints. The fact that we had enough time for a sit-down meal was a special treat. When we walked into the restaurant, I was struck by the number of veterans crowded around tables throughout the establishment. I identified these patrons as such from the many recognizable hats and jackets they wore. That was when I remembered that many businesses showed their appreciation for veterans through discounts and special offerings. After all, it was Veterans Day.
When the hostess seated us, she asked me if I was a veteran. I hesitated. My son had to prompt me to answer, and when I did in the affirmative, I looked away from the young woman. She handed me a "special" menu for Veterans Day. As I looked at the offerings, I couldn't help but notice that none of the more expensive or particularly remarkable menu items were listed. They looked more like options from the children's menu. I wanted to be grateful that they were offering anything at all, but I wasn't. I didn't share in the smiles or laughter I heard throughout the room. If I am being completely honest, I felt like walking out.
It's About the 'Day'
Veterans Day is supposed to be a time of appreciation, gratitude, and reflection. It is a day dedicated to me and the other 20+ million veterans and their families. When I checked my phone, I noticed that my social media feed was awash with statements of gratitude from family and friends. My wife had posted a picture from one of the formals at my last unit in recognition of Veterans Day. I am extremely blessed to have so many wonderful people in my life, but I didn't reply to any of the comments or kind words. I didn’t even do the obligatory "Like" of her post. I was clearly in a mood, but I didn’t know why. Then it hit me. I am very proud of my service and status as a veteran. My issue wasn't with the title of "veteran." My issue was with the "day" part.
When you separate or retire from the military, every day of the year will be a veteran's day
Because we have a holiday to commemorate our veterans, we attach our gratitude and appreciation to a date on the calendar. It seems inadequate. It feels like a consolation. The truth is, I'm not satisfied with a single day. I want the whole year. When I see the 10 percent discount, I am wondering how I get to the other 90 percent of outstanding value. I don't want to settle for the bargain or entitlement. As veterans, we're leaders. We are the selfless and compassionate volunteers who stood to protect and defend the nation. We do for others. Special offers or discounts don’t suit our nature.
If veterans are entitled to anything, it is a meaningful engagement about how we step into more meaningful roles as leaders in society. Instead of repurposing these leaders for more empowering roles and greater responsibilities, we often tell them to take a step back when they leave the military. We tell them to manage their expectations for that next job opportunity. We tell them to start over. We assess their value using metrics and credentials that simply don’t capture their true potential. We offer them the special discounts from the children's menu. How does any of this demonstrate appreciation or communicate an understanding of the veteran's enduring value to society?
I’ve heard all the reasons and justifications for why we exercise caution when hiring veterans into the civilian workforce. Let me say this regarding the ‘industry experience’ and ‘business acumen’ excuses that have become cliche. These men and women had no experience for the things they had been asked to do. They’ve conditioned themselves to learn and adapt by leaning into very uncomfortable spaces in some very dangerous places. When every indicator suggested that they might lose, they found a way to win. They don't fail. If you argue that their experience has nothing to do with measures of profit and loss, I agree. You can’t compare the two. Their circumstances were harder, and their stakes were much higher. Take a moment to imagine what they can do for your organization if you unleashed that potential in your workplace.
We Want to Continue Leading As Veterans
The irony of showing appreciation for veterans is that you shouldn’t ask what you can do for us. We should be creating the opportunities to ask what we can do for you. We inspire. We lead. We achieve. These are not things we do. This is who we are. Respectfully, don’t tell me how you support veterans by giving me your veteran hiring statistics. Don’t tell me about your discounts. We don’t want a "paycheck." We are worth more than the bargain or special rate. We want to lead. We want to continue making an impact, so by that measure, tell me about the veterans working in key leadership positions across your company. Share the example of how your on-boarding program has prepared them for a challenging leadership role that optimizes their full potential. Tell me how these men and women you've hired have inspired your organization to new levels of performance. This is what they did in uniform, so let's demonstrate appreciation in these kinds of initiatives and opportunities beyond the uniform.
We don't want a 'job.' It's not about the paycheck. We want an opportunity to make a significant contribution that aligns with our potential. We want to make a lasting impact across our society.
If veterans need anything, it is your active involvement in the reintegration process. The military tradition is an inseparable part of our national conscience, but veterans are a shrinking minority across our population. The civil-military cultural gap continues to widen as the percentage of service members, veterans, and their families continues to fall. Let’s facilitate their continued growth beyond the military by harnessing their intrinsic drive, addressing the cultural nuances of the military style, and expanding the aperture for commensurate leadership opportunities as veterans in the civilian workplace. Fill the gaps in their knowledge and skills in such a way that doesn’t detract from their total value proposition to your organization and the rest of society. Instead of considering the 10 percent discount, let’s have a conversation about how we might attain the full value from their service to benefit the whole of society.
Veterans are 'Ordinary' Heroes
For my fellow veterans, let me remind you that you are worth far more than any entitlement payment or discount. When you separate or retire from service, society replaces the title of soldier with the label of veteran. They ask you to be ordinary. Don’t accept that. That’s not who you are. I’ll let you in on a little secret - we consider service members and veterans heroes, but you didn’t become a hero because you wore the uniform. The hero is a part of your nature. That's the reason why the uniform fit. When you return to the ordinary, you are still the hero, and there's still plenty of work for you to do. You’ve earned appreciation and respect from your service, but you belong in positions of leadership throughout our society. That's just you being who you are.
I know that these efforts on Veterans Day are intended to show appreciation. I know that the expressions of gratitude on social media are genuine. We've come a long way from the examples of disrespect and condemnation from the past. I appreciate any expression of gratitude. What bothers me is when we stop there and fail to offer these men and women the opportunity to do across our civilian society what they did best in the military. These exceptional men and women who have served will continue to do so long after they relinquish their body armor and hang up the uniform. Let’s embrace their potential and honor them by empowering these ordinary heroes to inspire, lead, and achieve for the whole of society.
Ironically enough, when Aidan and I were finished with our lunch, the server forgot to apply the veteran discount for our meal. Perhaps she sensed my uneasiness. I didn't make a fuss. I just paid the bill. Maybe I was being lazy. Maybe I wanted to ensure that Aidan got back to the sports complex in time for fielding practice before the next game. Maybe I just didn’t like the placement of the words “veteran” and “discount” together. Maybe I felt like setting my sights on something more.