It’s easy to reflexively tell members of the military, “Happy Veterans Day!” And if pressed for a reason why you’re doing it, it’s probably easy to say, “We’re thanking them for their sacrifice.” If pressed a little further about what sacrifice you mean, you might name the loss of time from one’s family or the risk to one’s personal safety in order to serve on behalf of one's country. And those are certainly all important aspects of why we should value the contributions of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines.
But those aren't the only reasons. I’d say another important one is this: Veterans are people who have run toward something that other have run away from. While physical danger is a part of it, it’s not the whole of it – after all, there are plenty of other professions that involve risks to personal safety, yet there aren’t many paeans to, say, coal miners.
There's something a little deeper to it, then, than mere physical danger. What veterans voluntarily expose themselves to is the reality that there are places in this world where the rules of polite society do not apply, places where the trains do not run on time and the water is filthy and security comes from an AK-47 rather than a burglar alarm. They face up to the fact that the world, in its natural state, is chock full of bad people who do bad things, and they face that reality in foreign lands far from any semblance from home. They voluntarily disabuse themselves of the notion that the world is fundamentally a good place, and yet, all the same, make themselves part of an effort to work toward that very ideal.
Of course, this aspect to their service isn’t unique to military veterans. Whether it's those who devote their lives to teaching autistic children, or those who go into social work in order to help folks on the fringes of society, or underpaid and overworked public servants who fight fires, staff hospitals, prosecute criminals, or defend indigent criminal defendants all do the same -- the world is also chock full of people who are willing to look its more unsavory aspects dead in the face and yet continue to keep life's darker aspects from blotting out the light.
Unfortunately, it's too easy for many of us (myself included) to block that out. If your interests or career path doesn't take you toward the seedier side of life, especially if you're an electrical engineer or a musician or a patent lawyer or any other number of professions that give you an opportunity to move through life without having to pay much heed to its ugliness. Or, if you heed it, to think of it as something foreign, something that must be kept out at all costs, with security systems and burglar alarms and private schools and gated communities.
So, yes, thank the veterans. But also try to take what they do to heart. Our veterans have exposed themselves to the worst of what the world has to offer. And yet, at the end of the day, though, they are still flesh and blood human beings who made a conscious choice to make some little corner of that world a little better. That is a choice that’s available to anyone – look around with your eyes open, and you can probably find any number of people you can help.
That’s how you can thank a veteran. If you truly venerate heroes, then strive to follow their example in whatever small way you can. Don’t let your gratitude for their efforts become an excuse to let them do it alone.