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This November, thank a veteran

Service members exit a plane in Afghanistan.
Michael Zacchilli, MD, and his fellow service members exit a plane in Afghanistan.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of “The Great War” and the first incarnation of Veterans Day. With the national holiday to honor those who served and Thanksgiving a mere two weeks apart, we should thank our veterans this season.

This Veterans Day, as it is in every community across the US, Northwell Health takes time to recognize those in its ranks who served. But the most perceptive well-wishers may notice something when they offer the customary, “Thank you for your service.” A space between. Eyes averted, a pregnant pause, an unexplained distance…all before the veteran responds with a nod, a tentative smile, a canned response (“Thank you for being an American.”), or a joke (“Freedom’s on me today, citizen.”) Regardless of the response your gratitude is deeply appreciated. To express my gratitude today, I’d like to offer something a little different — an explanation of that space between.

There was a time when that awkward pause probably didn’t exist. Veterans Day began in its earliest conception in 1918, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month as Armistice Day. A century ago today, the world witnessed the cessation of World War I hostilities and the triumph of democracy. Over 4.7 million American men and women had served in the conflict, roughly 4.5 percent of the nation. One in 20 Americans was a veteran after less than two years of American involvement. Every family in America had a personal and acute understanding of military service and sacrifice.

A helicopter lands in Afghanistan

Today, 17 years after 9/11, less than one percent of the current US population (2.77 of 327.2 million) have served in the Global War on Terror. While World War I consumed the nation’s attention like a wildfire, the Global War on Terror is now smoldering into its second decade. In some ways, the distance between soldier and civilian seems to grow daily. In 1918, “Thank you for your service” was home to mutual understanding. For veterans today, however, I think that space between is often filled with things we wish we could explain or share.

For many there is some feeling that the gratitude is not completely deserved. I think this doubt comes from different places for different service members. Personally, it can be difficult to accept praise for my service on a day when I am surrounded by others who are more deserving. On a day of parades and bomber jackets and veterans caps, members of the greatest generation are rare but powerful participants. They set an example that saturates military lore, and we have precious few left. The veterans of Vietnam and Korea made the same or greater sacrifices to our modern forces, largely with less support and understanding. Veterans of the following decades with Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia, the Persian Gulf and countless other unpublicized missions are all too often lost in the shuffle or ignored. These are the men and women who made today’s military possible. They trained us. We stand upon the shoulders of giants. Thank them.

Veterans in medicine often harbor deeper doubts. It is our mission to preserve the fighting force, to bear witness to the sacrifice of others. Ask your local Northwell Navy OR tech or corpsman, your Army medic or nurse, your Coast Guard EMT who they are thinking about on Veterans Day — I am sure the list is full of former patients. Personally, I am proud to say that in six months on FOB Salerno, Afghanistan all but one American passing though my trauma bay survived, but despite our successes almost every one carries an indelible mark of their service. Today any thanks given to me belongs to them. There is one face, one wound, one hero who humbled me with his sacrifice. I wish I could have done more. Thank him.

Michael Zacchilli, MD, in Afghanistan

Finally, there are families at home who deserve unspeakable gratitude. In the four-year span from 2012 and 2016, I spent nearly two years away from my wife and our three boys. Much of that time was due to a voluntary choice, a job I felt I needed to do.

While I had the undying support of my whole family, it was always my choice that obligated them to that sacrifice. The same is true of most veterans. I have friends who in over 20 years of service were overseas more than 12 years. Thank our parents, our wives, our children.

When you thank me for my service, I am deeply appreciative. Yet I will always feel there are better places for you to direct your gratitude, and for me that is the enormity that fills the space between.

Please continue to express gratitude to your veterans today, even if the response seems hesitant. But don’t stop there. Talk to them. Give them an opportunity to teach you about the people that fill their silence. There is a way you can honor all veterans, because there is one ideal all veterans have sacrificed for — America. If you would thank us, honor our country. It is a beautiful, messy place built by disparate peoples and cultures. Take time today to consider how your words and actions support the idea we fought to protect. Help to build the country your veterans serve.

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