In the Covid era, Veterans Day teaches us that even senseless suffering can have meaning

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The coronavirus pandemic had claimed more than 230,000 American lives as of early November. Half of American adults who reported losing a job due to Covid-19 were still unemployed at the end of September. From racial tensions and civil unrest to a bitter national election, 2020 has brought deep, senseless suffering to millions of Americans.

Combat veterans teach us that suffering — even the senseless kind — can have meaning if accepted or endured out of love for others, even those we might never meet or know.

For many, it has been less “a hell of a year” and more a year of hell — a seemingly endless period of anxiety and loss accompanied by separation from family, friends, community, work, church and the other associations that make life worth living, all while a deadly virus disrupted virtually every facet of society.

Veterans Day is an opportunity to disrupt the disruptor.

Honoring our country’s more than 17 million veterans provides perspective on hardship. Combat veterans teach us that suffering — even the senseless kind — can have meaning if accepted or endured out of love for others, even those we might never meet or know. Americans wrestling with the trials of a tumultuous and hard year like 2020 should not only pause to honor veterans, but also find an example of how to redeem personal loss and grow strength to carry on.

To begin with, our national observance of Veterans Day briefly, helpfully, calls our attention away from ourselves. The growing civilian-military gap meant that as of 2018, veterans were only some 7 percent of America’s population. Pausing to reflect on their service brings into sharper focus the deeds and needs of others living alongside us.

Separate from Memorial Day, which honors America’s fallen, Veterans Day celebrates the country’s living sons and daughters who swore an oath to defend the Constitution, put on a uniform and entered harm’s way in theaters of operation worldwide.

We trace the holiday’s origins to Armistice Day and the end of World War I, when the warring powers agreed to halt hostilities at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. That this armistice came amid the Spanish flu of 1918 — a pandemic that killed an estimated 675,000 Americans and more than 50 million worldwide — allows us a deeper connection to the day’s historical roots. While different in degree, such an experience is not alien to us.

Reflecting on the experience of veterans also gives us perspective on our difficulties without dismissing them. Setting aside the incommunicable experience of war, which most Americans have never experienced, there remain other challenges routinely endured by service members that Americans in 2020 can now more deeply appreciate.

Like the challenge of being separated from loved ones.

Social distancing measures meant Americans in 2020 have missed birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and funerals. Many might also miss Thanksgiving. Our year of separation has given America a glimpse of what our veterans routinely endured over their active-duty careers. In 2010, the average length of deployment across all branches of service was seven and a half months, and service members routinely deploy multiple times.

Imagine freely forgoing cumulative years’ worth of major life moments and milestones. Not just birthdays, but births of children; not just holidays, but entire holiday seasons.

This is one of the things that has always made military service so powerful: Those who undergo it separate themselves from loved ones for the sake of others. They pass on lucrative private sector careers. They give up stable home lives. And they do so for people they do not know and, in many cases, never will.

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people.” Cut off from friends and family, Americans in 2020 have discovered hell is actually separation. Their veterans have known this much longer.

Recognizing this helps us gain a deeper understanding of Veterans Day as an opportunity to dwell on resilience and the growth that can follow periods of trial. Suffering — even when the result of an impersonal force like a pandemic — does not need to be senseless. Suffering can have meaning, if accepted out of love for others.

At an event with the Marines’ Memorial Club in San Francisco in 2014, then-retired Gen. Jim Mattis called attention to this possibility, pushing back against a perception that all veterans were emerging from their service as victims struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. “There is also something called post-traumatic growth,” Mattis told the audience of Iraq War and Afghan War veterans, “where you come out of a situation like that and you actually feel kinder toward your fellow man and fellow woman.”

In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” the Jewish psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl gave shape to a similar idea. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

The example of veterans and our country’s focus on their service this Veterans Day can help Americans choose their response to suffering in the remaining weeks of this awful year. And choosing well can help restore some of the torn threads of our national social fabric. Living today with an attitude of gratitude and voicing thanks to those who served is a good place to start.

This helps us gain a deeper understanding of Veterans Day as an opportunity to dwell on resilience and the growth that can follow periods of trial.

This year has seen many examples of selfless responses already, but consider the case of the Catholic Memorial School in Boston. High school boys serve as pallbearers at funeral services for homeless veterans they have never known. As one school administrator wrote, the experience helps the boys “learn how to empathize with the suffering of others and to see a stranger as their brother.”

Veterans Day offers us the same opportunity while the veteran yet lives. What’s more, it’s a chance not only to see veterans as brothers and sisters, but also those for whom they served.

Bill Rivers

Bill Rivers was a speechwriter for former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the Pentagon from 2017-19. A former Truman Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, he lives in Virginia. Follow him on Twitter @riverswrites.

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