I don't identify as a veteran very often. It's an awkward thing to claim.
If I tell you I am a veteran, you -- likely -- will cringe because I'm making you feel guilty for failing to acknowledge whatever sacrifice society tells you I've made. I will at least cringe because you -- likely -- will shower on some 'thank you' for those sacrifices that I, in fact, haven't made. But you wouldn't know that because the word 'veteran' is so charged and all-encompassing.
Either way, one of us is cringing. That's not much of a conversation starter, and I'd rather have none of it.
It shouldn't be that way.
Here's the deal: we are not all heroes. We're not. We have not all been shot at, and we have not all signed up for the opportunity to be shot at. Many of us have never been to a war zone, and have experienced a pretty uneventful enlistment.
I certainly was not thinking about throwing down my entire life for you when I signed away a few years of it 14 years ago. The honor of wearing the uniform was nice, but I was mostly thinking about the cool language I was about to learn and the college money I'd have after I finished my enlistment.
The military gives tremendous benefits to folks who enlist -- signing bonuses, repayment of student loans, the incredible GI Bill, among others. The benefits are not there because it's easy to collect recruits. The military knows that convincing kids to join requires incentives that provide more benefits than costs to joining.
Making the decision to join, then, is a cost-benefit analysis. Honor and duty may be part of it, but it's not all of it. You don't get a millions-large military counting on the selflessness of volunteers.
Am I describing the entire enlisted force, past and present? Not at all.
But that's the point. There are many who came to the services with the same perspective as me. There are many who are the exact hero idolized in the American psyche. We are not all the same. Taking the veteran moniker doesn't change that.
What I'm getting to is this: Stop "other"-ing us.
We are not a selfless group of untouchable heroes. We are not all incapable of navigating the civilian world after serving a few years without a little help. Our understanding of politics is not any better than yours.
We are who we are because of experiences, upbringing and education, just like anyone else.
What that means is most of us are not that hero in your head. Most of us never have been. Stop treating us that way.
Because when you do, that quick gloss-over extends into other things.
You begin to demand each and every politician is vaguely 'pro-veteran' so that being 'anti-veteran' becomes a distracting campaign attack. Being 'pro-veteran' becomes a sentiment rather than an action.
You become afraid of criticizing past engagements for fear of telling veterans that their sacrifices were not worth it. You become wary of criticizing future engagements in the same region, for the same reason.
You may second guess decreasing an over-inflated defense budget because you may not know that the veterans benefits are separate.
When you don't question, you don't learn, and you don't make informed decisions. Important discussions become lost over worry at seeming patriotic enough.
Last Veterans Day, I asked you to stop automatically saying 'thank you' to every veteran you see. This year I'd like you to stop seeing veterans as just veterans, and more as citizens who've had different experiences than you.
If those experiences earn your respect and admiration, then maybe you've found the hero you've envisioned.
But you won't know unless you ask.