The Story of a Veteran

By John E. Reeder

I remember my first Veterans Day after I began working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  At first I didn’t realize we had the day off.  I’d been assigned to work with a more senior staff member, a Vietnam vet, who said “of course” Veterans Day is a federal holiday, “to honor our vets…to honor you!”

I joined the U.S. Army right out of high school, in part to help me pay for college, in part to see the world, and in part because I had a bug about public service.  Then, I spent a good part of my college and graduate school years downplaying my military service. Not that I was embarrassed, but it always seemed to need an explanation and I just wanted to blend into the college scene.  I joined the army in 1979, at a time when the military was having trouble recruiting anyone with a high school degree.  So, I often got a quizzical look when people learned I had enlisted in the army, followed by, “what’d you do that for?”  By the time I finished college and grad school, my service seemed like a story from someone else’s life.

For many men and women, military service is a life-shaping experience. It certainly was for me. I grew up on a farm in Minnesota, and had never been to a military installation. I knew my great grandfather served in the Civil War, and then homesteaded our family’s farm in Minnesota.  However, our family didn’t have a military tradition. So, when I turned 17 and told my parents I was joining the army, it was the first time I saw my father cry.  It was all very foreign to them. We were baling hay one day, and the next I was shipped off to Alabama for basic training (my first time on an airplane!).

I know my parents worried every step of the way, , but my military service wasn’t any real hardship or dangerous. I spent 2000 hours in a guard tower during my 20 months in Germany, and on my days off I got to go sightseeing throughout Germany and parts of France. I made amazing friends, bonded by the shared experience of shipping off to basic training and having no idea where we’d end up.  We were all making a move of some sort, away from or toward something.  While intersecting for a brief point in our lives, we did our jobs and made memories that lasted forever. I think it’s that way for a lot of young men and women in the military.

Everyone who has served in the military has given something of themselves. They gave their time, they trained and prepared for potentially risky assignments. They went to forward locations, or they went into battle.  Or, maybe they sat in guard towers in Germany.  But, they all stepped out of the life they had, and gave themselves to the larger endeavor of protecting America.

There have been millions of service men and women before me, and after me.  Many have seen the horrors of war, and suffered physical or psychological damage. There are no words to thank them enough.  Many have done their time and left, like I did.  Some stayed for full careers.

What we know for sure is that every day and through the night, around the globe, there have been and will be American service men and women on duty monitoring radar, patrolling perimeters, assessing threats, and deterring our enemies. They are standing ready to put their life on the line so we can expect to wake up each morning, take our kids to school, and go to work.  We expect that our businesses can do business, our schools can teach, our utilities can deliver services, and we can fly or ride wherever we want any day. It’s hard to even imagine war on our soil, and that is truly the most amazing gift from many, many generations of American veterans.

Thank you veterans.

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