Veterans need more than our thanks

by Kenneth Leonard

Courtesy Kenneth Leonard

I left active duty in the U.S. Army almost two years ago, and when Veterans Day rolls around every November, the same thought always crosses my mind: Please, don’t say “thank you.”

I couldn’t really tell you why it makes me uncomfortable when people thank me for serving in the military. I appreciate the gesture and I like the idea of people being grateful for service members, but it makes me feel awkward for two reasons. For starters, members of the armed forces are trained to be mission-oriented thinkers and because we often see ourselves as members of a huge team, it is difficult to receive individual gratitude. Most of us don’t think we did anything while serving to warrant any special recognition. We simply did our jobs.

Speaking of jobs, consider a May report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics which reported the U.S. national unemployment rate dropped to 8.2 percent, but the unemployment rate for young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans rose to 12.7 percent—more than 4 percentage points above the national average. These numbers aren’t unusual. Last year, the unemployment rate for new vets was 12.1 percent, which means more than 234,000 new veterans didn’t have jobs after leaving the military. Among veterans in the 18-24 age bracket, the numbers were even worse, with almost 30 percent unemployment. Now I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a better way to thank veterans than to provide them with jobs.

Rampant unemployment among veterans leads me to my second reason for not wanting to hear “thank you” from people. Frankly, the words sound hollow coming from most people because America could be doing so much more to express gratitude for veterans in the form of practical support. In California, there are nearly 50,000 homeless veterans, with more than 3,000 of them in San Diego. What will a spoken “thank you” do to help get them off the streets? Real, tangible problems threaten many veterans and they require real, practical solutions. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, an American veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes. This is inexcusable. More than 6,500 veterans commit suicide every year, which is more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. Clearly, something is wrong with the way America relates to its veterans.

Nov. 11, 1918 marked the armistice of World War I, known in its era as the “war to end all wars.” Unfortunately, there is a sad irony to this term. Since then, America participated in wars in or against Germany, Japan, Italy, North Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. This is an incomplete list, of course. War has never been something Americans want, but when it happens, brave men and women have consistently stepped up and made tremendous sacrifices. It’s not for accolades or for displays of gratitude, which is why they are so worthy of respect. Every year, America produces more veterans. It is fitting we honor the men and women who risked everything to sustain the freedoms we often take for granted, but attending a parade or saying, “thank you” in passing just isn’t cutting it.

If you would like to express gratitude for veterans this year, get out and take action. There are numerous organizations in San Diego geared toward providing services to veterans and they can always use volunteers. I can assure you, there are no overstaffed veterans organizations.

Instead of saying the words, I urge you, dear reader, to go out and take action. Or if you want to say some words, may I suggest, “How can I help?”