This column is adapted from a speech that Steve Gilroy, a former president of the Student Veterans Organization, gave at the Richard Stockton College Veterans Day ceremony on Nov. 12.
I was a petty officer in the U.S. Navy. I had the honor of serving on two and a half deployments from Somalia to Iraq on board a destroyer and later a coastal patrol craft, a small boat with about 28 people.
When I left the service in 2008, the economy had just crashed. My training as a naval electrician was underappreciated because there weren't enough jobs. But that was OK. I wanted to go to college. I wanted that degree, and I wanted a fresh start, a chance to climb a little further up that ladder that so many had climbed before me.
I chose Stockton because of all the schools I had visited, no other had posters on the wall welcoming veterans back from the war. No other seemed to go out of the way like Stockton to make sure that vets going back to school had all the tools they needed to excel. Indeed, few other schools saw the waves of returning heroes coming home to get their educations as an opportunity, as Stockton did.
I joined the then-fledgling Student Veterans Organization, became involved with helping out other student vets however I could, and rose to become secretary and, last year, president, a job I took seriously and humbly and one I only hope I did well enough to leave things better than I found them. And this year, I'm graduating with my bachelor's with program distinction and a slew of friends and memories that I will treasure for the rest of my life.
But my experience hasn't necessarily been the typical one. I'm lucky. I know that. I'm not blind. I've seen the troubles that so many other veterans come home to:
Servicemen and women coming home with wounds both visible and invisible. Schools that treat them with contempt, as a burden, or as something whose benefits exist to be exploited for their own gain. Some for-profit colleges even sent scouts to sign veterans up for classes while they still lay in hospitals, recovering from their wounds, listless from the meds and pain and waking up unaware that they'd even been signed up for classes in the first place. Veterans services, despite much-lauded increases in funding, still remain woefully unprepared and disorganized.
And each year, we get a day, a day for ceremonies like this one happening everywhere around the country, to remind ourselves of the service of so few who give so much.
But, to me, this day, Veterans Day, should mean something more to more people than just veterans. In an era with the largest disconnect between civilian and military communities in our nation's history, it shouldn't just be a reminder, or a chance for vets to get free meals at restaurants (though we do enjoy that). It should be a call to those who haven't served. It should be a call to those other Americans, the more than 99 percent who don't enter military service, to keep this a country worth fighting for, and to be mindful of the policies and the society that shape and define us.
What does this mean? I'll give you some examples of things everyone can do to honor veterans.
Be informed. After coming home, it amazed many of us how little people seem to know or care what's going on out there. So, read the news and get it from multiple sources - not just from partisan media that play people for fools. Know what's going on in the world, so that when we vets are sent to fight overseas in your name, you know why and how it's happening.
Don't take us for granted. When you hear our elected leaders pound on the war drum, threaten force and play the war card for their own political benefit, know that it's our sacrifice and the sacrifice of our families he or she is playing with, and that we are a finite resource, already pushed to the edge after two wars resulting in the deaths of so many of our vets, not only at the hands of our enemies but by their own hand.
And finally: Vote. I know we just had an election, and you're sick of hearing this. I don't care what party you belong to. I don't care what beliefs you hold. Every election you don't vote is to squander the freedom we have fought for. A free republic like ours cannot long endure in a culture of apathy and ignorance.
I don't mean to get political, or send everyone into a guilt trip. I know most everyone here does work to help us vets in so many ways. All I'm saying is that Veterans Day should be a call for those who haven't served to earn the sacrifices of those who have, and to do so in a way that doesn't just involve sticking a yellow ribbon on the back bumper of your car. That's all. Earn it. Earn the freedom we fight for. It will make our sacrifices worth it, and damn it, it will make our country, already the greatest in the world, even greater.