When I tell people I’m a veteran I always feel as though I should qualify it with a “but I’m not really”. To me a veteran is a man who served in combat and either came back in one piece or as many of our veterans do, came home with a mental or physical injury that makes them a survivor in many respects. I didn’t survive anything close to what a combat veteran survived aside from Basic Training. I was deployed, but my deployment took me not to the fields of battle in Iraq and Afghanistan but to the hills of Germany to support operations in Bosnia. I am given many of the same benefits as my male counterparts who have served honorably in fields of battle, but am always hesitant to accept the same respect. But when I explain my role to other veterans I often hear, “If you weren’t there doing your job, we wouldn’t have been able to do our job.” So I suppose being a veteran means being respectful.
Because of my military service and dedication to veteran’s causes I’ve known veterans from every conflict since World War II. World War II veterans, Viet Nam veterans, Desert Storm veterans, OIF and OEF veterans, no matter the conflict they all say the same thing, I was just doing my job. That is the one thing I’ve noticed is that we all downplay is our role in service. I had one veteran friend of mine who was severely injured by an IED- Improvised Explosive Device in Iraq sum it up best. He said something to the effect of- “why would anyone consider me a hero? I got blown up doing my job, what’s heroic about that?” I can’t begin to tell you how many veterans no matter how great their sacrifice say- I was just doing my job. Of course we all understand that doing our job is about doing things the average American neither understands or could do themselves. So I suppose being a veteran means being humble.
I am privileged to know several women who’ve served in the military. Being a woman in the military is never easy in that our roles aren’t as defined as our male counterparts. There were places I had to go and things I had to do in the military that simply weren’t accommodating for me as a person of the female gender. I made due with what was available and quickly learned my best defense was to adapt and overcome. I was once told that I couldn’t go to a FOB- Forward Operating Base to set up a medical treatment tent because I was a female soldier, and the officer in charge didn’t want his men to have to accommodate a woman’s delicate sensibilities. In other words he didn’t want his guys to have to put away their Playboy magazines when I showed up. I understood in a sense that this officer was trying to think of my safety and comfort as a woman- but I was a soldier first. In fact my platoon Sargent stood his ground and said- “I don’t have female soldiers, I have soldiers who are the best damn medics you’ll have the privilege of serving with, so I’ll be sending my best medic.” For the record he sent me, and the guys didn’t put away their magazines because I said it was okay for them to keep them out. So I suppose being a veteran means being able to make sacrifices.
One of my dearest friends is a World War II veteran by the name of Roque “Rocky” Riojas. Rocky fought in Patton’s army on the shores of Italy before being sent home mid-tour for an injury. Rocky is a Mexican American and came home to a country that was willing to let him fight for them, but unwilling to acknowledge his basic rights as a human being. He endured prejudice, hostility and ignorance from the very people he fought to protect. It’s people like Rocky who have paved the way for others like myself to be allowed to serve in the United States Military without being subjected to prejudice or harassment. We’ve come a long way since Rocky’s time in service, and now we honor him as a generation of warriors who paved the way for the rest of us. Rocky goes to schools, veteran’s organizations and libraries to talk about his time in service. Being around us young folks keeps him young he says. Rocky is an American first and foremost. Everyday he steps outside his home to hang the American flag with a proper salute. I have learned so much from him about honor, integrity and how crucial those qualities are to all of humanity despite the differences in our gender, nationality, sexual orientation or age. So I suppose being a veteran means being honorable in word and deed.
I think being a veteran is about more than whether you’re eligible for VA benefits. I think it’s about honor, sacrifice, humility and respect more so than where you served or what you did to stop the enemy. I think being a veteran is about humbly honoring the sacrifices of those we respect who have come before us, and will follow us in service to this great nation. As a veteran, I salute each and every one of you for all you do, will do and have done. Above all- thank you for your service and Welcome Home!