Reflecting back on MLK Day, I was thinking about how far we’ve come since the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go. Maybe it’s because I’m a veteran, but I really feel like that the military and veteran community can, and should, provide the leadership for the next leg of the journey towards achieving MLK’s glorious dream.
How many times though, as veterans, have we heard the statement, “But you don’t look like a veteran!” And right after that statement, the person who utters these words takes a step back, as if all of a sudden they are aware of some contagion that all veterans carry, or have been warned somewhere not to stand too close to veterans?
It’s a funny thing, because I’m not exactly sure what a veteran is supposed to look like either. Once in a courtroom, I heard a judge respond to a veteran who asked if he could bring in character references from his past unit make this statement, “That’s fine, but I don’t want a bunch of tattooed bikers in here causing trouble.” Because we’re all tattooed bikers evidently.
Out on the ski slopes last year, while skiing with a friend of mine who has a below the knee amputation, someone walked up to my friend and thanked him for his military service. My friend’s never been in the Army. However, from different amputees I know, it’s a familiar story. However, not all amputees are veterans.
Yesterday, I snuck into the office for a couple of volunteer meetings when the building superintendent, Paul, walked by to try and fix some blinds, and asked me why I was working on a holiday. So I told him what I was doing and he said, “The Sierra Club works with the military? But you’re not a veteran are you?” I told him I was and he responded, “Me too! I never thought the Sierra Club would hire a veteran!” But they have I told him, and was excited to tell him about David Brower, the legendary Sierra Club executive director who was also a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division in WW2. “You can never judge a book by its cover!” Paul replied. We had a good hour long conversation about what it means to be a veteran, the changes he’s seen since the Vietnam era when he served, what I’m working on, and how he could get involved.
I’ve seen Paul a hundred times since I started working at the Club. We’ve been friendly, but neither of us guessed for one reason or another that we were veterans…because even to our trained eyes, neither of us looked the part.
How must these conversations be for military families? Do military spouses get told, “But you don’t look like a military spouse?!”
So here’s the thing, if you want to know what a veteran looks like, or a military family, take a look in the mirror and there’s a good chance that your reflection is an approximation of at least one military family member or veteran somewhere in this great country of ours. That’s the beautiful thing about being a veteran or military family member. We’re all around you, we’re all around us. We’re every color, creed, orientation, gender, and we’re pretty equally dispersed along the various categories and boxes that people can use from time to time to try and divide our country. We are, in at least one very real way, that which unites our country.