By Sgt. Joseph Gunderson
Within our community of service members and veterans, we often hear people complain about and even make fun of those who decide to wear their Operation Iraqi Freedom hats or some piece of flair from their old uniform. Many people attempt to call out those wearing these things as an attention-seeking tactic; a passive-aggressive way of poking each person that you encounter in public and whispering in their ears, “Hey, I’m a veteran. You’re supposed to thank me for my service now.” But I want to contest this opinion, and offer you a different theory.
If you have not already figured, I happen to be one of those veterans that often wears a pin, or badge, or hat that signifies that I am, in fact, a veteran. Many a time, you will be hard pressed to find me not wearing something that is easily recognizable as something attributed to the military. I have a dog tag that hangs from the short chain on a zipper that is on my leather jacket. On another one of my leather jackets, I often have a “combat cavalry badge” (which I know is not a real award) pinned just above the left breast pocket. I also have my good ol’ DV hat that is laden with little pins.
Yes, I like to have a little something on me, but it is definitely not to call attention to my prior service. Frankly, I could not care any less if I ever get thanked. In fact, I am, more often than not, very uncomfortable when someone walks up to me and says, “Thank you for your service.” Like most other vets, I really don’t know how to properly respond. So, why would I walk around rocking a dog tag or badge on my jacket, or a pin on my vet hat? Let me tell you why...
Many of us have a difficult time when we leave the military. It is a stressful time. The life that you have known for many years is over. If you are anything like me, someone who enlisted directly out of high school and spent my entire adult life in the military (at that time), it is a horrible shock to the system when you are thrown back out into the real world. For a while, like many, I dove into a bottle and swam around inside of it for quite some time. I eventually climbed out of that bottle and began working to get my life back on track, but it wasn’t easy. What made me want to get back up and try to succeed was the memory of what I once was.
You see, I believed when I left the military that I lost a part of myself; like my identity had been stripped from me, and I was a shell of my former self. I no longer wore my sergeant chevrons, or my beret, or any of the uniform for that matter, so obviously I was no longer a soldier.
However, after months of self-reflection, I came to the realization that just because my time in the military was over didn’t mean that I was entirely stripped of the title I had earned. I was still a soldier, I had earned that title years ago when I stood up at my OSUT graduation at Fort Knox, Kentucky. That couldn’t be taken from me. It just took me a long time to see this fact.
Even though I had come to this realization that I could still hold onto my identity, time passed and I got further and further from the last time I polished my shoes and made sure that those ribbons were exactly 1/8 inch above the breast pocket. It became easy to slip back into forgetting who I was. That’s why I wear something, anything, always on my person. It isn’t for the looks, it isn’t to ensure that I get my 10 percent military discount at Applebee’s, and it certainly isn’t for strangers to come and thank me. It’s a reminder to myself of what I have done, where I have been and who I am. It is a subtle reminder that I am no longer in uniform, but I am still strong, still intelligent and still destined for greatness.
So perhaps the next time you see someone, man or woman, young or old, regardless of their branch of service or the conflict they served in, and they are wearing something that you recognize, don’t automatically think that they are looking for attention. Maybe approach them and talk to them. Ask them what they did, where they served, when they did it. Maybe that conversation will go a long way and help remind them of who they are. I guarantee that it will make their days just a little bit better, and you might benefit as well from the conversation.
Just remember that you don’t know what is going on in that other veteran’s head. Perhaps the last thing they need is a brother or sister in arms looking down on them for simply being proud of who they are. Sometimes, we all just need a little reminder of who we are, and who we used to be.