People always ask when Veterans Day rolls around, what it stands for or what it means to me personally.
Is it just a day off of work or an event or family gathering? Is it a parade with floats and fire engines blazing their sirens, clowns on trikes adorning flags, or old men and women waving from classic sports cars and sporting a flat-billed hat with web netting in the back?
This is how I remember it. And of course I remember the candy and music and dancing. As a kid, this is all I knew. I knew that it was a day that those men and women in uniform were like Gods–towering in formations and stepping in unison through the streets of my neighborhood–keeping their own beat with the sounds of their heels striking the pavement.
I knew nothing of the day’s meaning or why they were there, but I loved the military because that’s what we do–and there was a connection to this significant day.
I remember the parades like they were yesterday–vivid and real. But more clearly now, I remember when Veterans Day became something I would never forget–something more than an event and something that became a part of my entire existence.
I woke up one Veterans Day and didn’t get the day off. I was now wearing the uniform that I remember passing by in formations growing up back home. Standing in the mean streets of Fallujah, Iraq on this special day in 2004, I could only wish I were back home watching a parade instead of being a part of one–one in a foreign land, on foreign streets littered with trash and the call to rise against the infidels blaring instead of friendly sirens and clowns. We marched through the streets in unison–tactical formations flanking the enemy and covering our buddies as they moved; I could almost hear the music and see the floats pulled by Humvees, and we passed out candy from MREs to the Iraqi children who were eager to meet us while we cleared buildings and fought for their freedoms. It was a parade people didn’t watch.
All of a sudden, Veterans Day had a new meaning for me–I understood in an instant, where those men and women in uniform came from as a child. The day was still full of all of the great things I remembered growing up, but now it meant more coming from the other side of the parade line. I was fighting for others, fighting for my loved ones back home, and mostly fighting for the men and women beside me.
Today, for me, it is a day of reflection; a day to remember where I’ve been and what I’ve done for my country–what we’ve done. It’s a day to celebrate the camaraderie that we share as brothers and sisters in arms–a collective cultural mindset that we are a part of something greater than ourselves.
It is a day to remember our fallen–the men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice so that we may live on. And it is a day to remember those who came before us–the warriors who fought for our freedoms throughout history and paved the way for where we are today.
Veterans Day is all of these things and more. It is everything it means to a child and everything it means to a child no more. It is what we make it, and it is our day as those who have served. We are a select few, who stand when needed, and who go places no one else will go when called, and we are the heroes of freedom–take pride in who we are–for We are United.
I never thought I would have such a perspective on what this day means to me. I never thought about having to answer those questions about what it stands for having come from both sides of the parade.
Today I will walk with pride, in New York City, in the largest Veterans Day parade in our nation, and the first parade for me since those streets in Iraq. And I am thankful for the experience, for the men and women who walked that walk in war with me, for those who walk today, and those who walk no more, let us celebrate and honor our service, our sacrifice, and our heroes.
Happy Veterans Day to all.
Note: Information about Veterans Day events can be found at http://iava.org/vetsday2013. Veterans and supporters who can’t make an event in person, can show support by joining the march online by using the hashtag #UniteWithVets on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Ryan Weemer served as a U.S. Marine in Iraq. He was wounded in action in Fallujah in 2004, and was awarded the Purple Heart and Navy Commendation medal with combat distinguishing device for valor under fire. Today he is an education case manager at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA.org). He recently co-founded the War Writers’ Campaign (WarWritersCampaign.org). He can be followed on Twitter at @RyanWeemer.