I rarely ever feel short.
While standing in front of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. recently, an umbrella of emotion surrounded me. When I ran my hands across the marble, slick with water droplets, the creases of the carved names imprinted my fingertips. As I stepped back, the omniscient rain hammered heavily upon my head, and I felt my lungs freeze as melancholy air coursed through my blood.
I felt short.
On the west side, second panel, line 89 is engraved the name Thomas W. Skiles. He is my grandfather. I have no memories of him. I never loved him. I never met him. He’s a stranger to me. As far as I know, we have nothing in common except our last names. Yet staring at his name stunned me. I was overcome by emotion, and my empathy grew.
I often complain about the nuisances in my life: the five hours of sleep I got the night before a big test; how only middle-aged moms watch my favorite show, This Is Us; the inability for my hair to be in a ponytail for even five minutes without a giant crease forming. But interacting with the thousands of names, including my grandfather’s, initiated my realization of the privileges my life contains, and the immense respect I owe for all involved in the vastly expansive, deadly war.
I think it’s easy for my generation to fall into the habit of rolling our eyes when teachers and parents instruct us to display gratitude for our veterans for fighting for our freedom. On Veterans Day, we all spend a maximum of five minutes writing ‘Thank You For Your Service’ on a sheet of cardstock an adult hands you. In a way, I understand. My generation and I weren’t alive to witness the destruction of the Vietnam War, and the current situations surrounding U.S. soldiers aren’t exactly broadcast. It is difficult to empathize with something so foreign. But it is our moral obligation to try.
While I stood in front of the Vietnam War Memorial, I noticed kids around the age of 11 trying to slide on the wet, slick pavement. They were laughing and yelling. There were teenagers and 20-somethings taking selfies with the wall as if it were just an opportunity to post a photo in front of a tourist attraction instead of a meaningful means to honor those that fought in violent, foreign lands. I even saw some tourists turn around and walk away disinterested.
I find this appalling and embarrassing.
Does it greatly inconvenience you to stand still and focus on the tragedy before your eyes?
Is the suffering of humankind too separate from you that you can’t take five minutes to try to empathize?
It is our responsibility to change this thoughtless habit. One does not need to have had a family member’s name engraved in the marble to practice respect and appreciation for the suffering that took place. I suggest everyone, whether or not they are in front of a memorial or looking for a way to honor their veterans on Veteran’s Day, pick a name and do a background check. Get to know them, their story, and their impact on your life. Hopefully then remembrance becomes more personal and gratitude grows.
I feel as if I should clarify that, as I respect veterans and advocate for such respect amongst others, I am not promoting war. Nor am I advocating for a strictly neutral government. The expression of gratitude for those who have served shouldn’t be associated with politics. This only worsens our ability to empathize.
Next year I hope to see the nation fall silent on Veteran’s Day. I hope that students don’t use the day off from school to catch-up with their friends. I hope memorials are decked with flowers. And I hope cards mailed to veterans express more gratitude and empathy than ‘Thank You For Your Service.’