The guns fell silent, one by one, across the Western Front. On this day 102 years ago, the thunderous artillery and the gunfire ceased, leaving only the screams of the wounded, and the final breaths of the dying in the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.
The Great War ended a century ago, and my time at war ended over four years ago, yet just like those who escaped from the Western Front, for me war has somehow remained.
America set aside a day of remembrance for the men who endured the barbed wire and trenches a century ago, and those who came after, men like me; men whose war quietly lives on as a permanent companion in the back of their minds. It’s a specter whose constant presence quietly fills the room each day and hour with its dark-casting shadow, always there, but never seen.
War is a phantom whose dates and locations have changed across the century, but always leaving the same, identifiable mark upon each man. It’s a family tree whose limbs grow longer, and roots spread deeper, with each generation. Men united not by blood, but by a singular experience.
These are the memories and emotions most of us would rather forget, but never will. The images of mangled corpses and contorted limbs, a veil-clad woman crying out, clutching the lifeless, bloody body of her husband. The emotions of anger, hatred, and deep-cutting sorrow rip open the soul, imparting their mark for eternity.
The same emotions first overwhelmed and surged through my young veins almost a decade ago. They made a wound that has faded with time, but will always remain. No passage of time, no change of scenery will erase what cannot be undone, what cannot be unfelt, what cannot be unseen.
My wound opens at the most unusual of times. Its toxic, numbing waste flooded my blood and mind when I silently passed through the loud, noisy halls in college, and when the fading summer light struck a freshly plowed farmer’s field as I passed by.
As I write these words, I don’t expect you or the country’s pity, thanks, or praise. I don’t wish for ticker-tape parades, a holiday, or even words of gratitude.
I did what my country asked of me. I did my duty and survived, returning home a changed man, grateful for the experience that plunged its sharp blade into my being, leaving its incision deep within, binding my soul to those who climbed out of the trenches more than a century ago.
All through college on Veteran’s Day, inquisitive students mouthed in hushed tones and whispers before the beginning of class, “Thank you for your service.” Their eyes gleamed with the misplaced fear of saying something that would offend or cause me distress, while uncertain if they had done enough for men like me with five simple words.
I’d respond in kind with my own eight simple words: It was worth it for Americans like you. Every haunting memory, every sleepless night the previous seven years was worth it—for you.
America is often perplexed on how it should respond to words like these, continuously fraught with anxious worry if it has done enough. It offers men like me free meals, congratulatory handshakes, and endless words of thanks. The truest answer we can give is simple, neither requiring words of thanks, nor celebratory gatherings.
If you truly seek a way to honor those who quietly carry scarred souls and heavy-laden minds for America, simply live a good life, a life of love in service of your neighbor.
The thousands of men like me who quietly go about our days carrying joyful memories and painful scars, memories of unbreakable brotherly love and sacrifice, scars of hate, scars of violence, and scars of suffering, are not the heroes who deserve your gratitude. Men like me are not heroes, we are the lucky ones, the fortunate ones, the survivors.
We live our lives to the fullest each passing day, living for our friends and comrades who never enjoyed a life after war. These men never began families, never gently held their daughter’s hand one last time walking her down the aisle, never saw home again—these are the real heroes.
These are the men who deserve monuments erected on their behalf, the men who deserve your gratitude this day and every day, the men who deserve the thanks of a grateful nation.
If you sincerely wish to honor men like me, then live a life worthy of the great price paid on your behalf. Strive each day in forming a more perfect union through your daily vocations, aiming for excellence in all you do; from reading one more bedtime story to your children to caring for the elderly widow next door, instructing your children, and their children to do the same.
While words of gratitude are always appreciated, it is your unseen actions—quiet, simple, and thankless—that matter most. On November 11 in the 11th hour, remember the real heroes, and rededicate yourself toward living a life worthy of the one they never enjoyed.