As we approach Veterans Day, my work once again has me engaged in the planning of many major events to help highlight the significance of one of our long-standing patriotic holidays. Veterans Day is related to, yet distinct from, Memorial Day, which is specifically reserved to remember those who lost their lives in the now centuries-old struggle to interpret and preserve the ideals upon which this nation was founded. Many know that that Memorial Day was originally called “Decoration Day,” called so because it was dedicated to literally decorating the graves of the fallen each year. Veterans Day, rather, is an occasion as much for the living as it is for the departed. It is also distinct because it can and should be a celebration, and not necessarily a memorial. It need not be a celebration of the military as an institution, but rather a celebration of the individual, and a heartfelt recognition of the very nature of courage and service as virtues.
In Ethical Culture, service to others is a central pillar, and it is one of the very things that defines our humanity. We are, of course, biologically programmed to serve those we love and those for whom we are responsible. We are also naturally compelled to serve our friends, neighbors, colleagues, and acquaintances. When we are at our best, we also serve complete strangers who are in need, and we give of our resources and time as we hope and believe others would give should we ever be in need. But the understandable question implicit in this particular kind of service is often “at what cost?” It is easier to serve when our service doesn’t require significant personal sacrifice. And so it is that service undertaken by those whom we do not know, and which also comes at notable sacrifice, that is perhaps the most noble and pure. It is the most difficult and requires the greatest courage.
So where does the potential of sacrificing your life, or the life of a loved one, fall in this spectrum? And what about sacrificing that life on behalf of a complete stranger–or 330 million strangers? I am very fortunate that my career has not taken me into that particular realm, but it is the reality for many families who serve in our armed forces, and yet they volunteer and have volunteered to serve with that clear knowledge. It is possible–and even honorable–to view Veterans Day not in the context of tacitly glorifying a large military complex, or with the concern that acknowledging veterans is akin to an endorsement of violence or war. Rather, Veterans Day can and should be an opportunity to give thanks to each of those individual human beings, past and present, who have deliberately and willingly chosen to take action to benefit others where others have not, with the potential consequence of the greatest sacrifice imaginable. At its heart, Veterans Day should simply be about lifting up that courage and service in its purest form.
Jason Fettig, WES member
Colonel, United States Marine Corp