Veterans deserve assistance, not platitudes

The federal holiday now called Veterans Day originally recognized the end of World War I, “The War to End All Wars.” In the 81 years since, America’s many military involvements have ensured robust numbers of former service personnel in every generation born after the 1918 armistice.

At a time when the burdens of our military commitments fall on an increasingly small sliver of our society, it has never been more important for us to honor our many veterans with tangible, actual help, not just superficial gestures and shallow rhetoric.

Wearing a T-shirt that says “Freedom isn’t Free” or slapping a yellow ribbon onto your vehicle is nice sentiment, but it doesn’t accomplish anything aside from expressing a vague and abstract idea.

Today’s veterans returning from deployment will need actual support and empathy, from physical or mental health care to gainful employment to marriage counseling. I encourage everyone to put the politics aside and show all of our veterans some compassion like our founder, Archbishop John Ireland, who was a Union chaplain during the Civil War.

There are more than 369,000 active-duty troops currently stationed outside of the United States, on all six habitable continents. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there are currently 24 million American military veterans, including 131,000 veterans estimated to be homeless on any given night.

According to a study released by the Harvard University School of Medicine, 2,266 veterans under the age of 65 died last year because they had no health insurance. There are 1.2 million members in the nonprofit Disabled American Veterans, a number likely to increase as wounded soldiers continue to be airlifted from the explosive front lines of America’s “Global War on Terror.”

I expect post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide and substance abuse to be very real issues for returning veterans in the coming decades, not to mention the many physical ailments already received in combat. I hope my generation shows respect and understanding for these men and women, not callous dismissals of courage like from many of those who avoided Vietnam.

America has been at war since I was in middle school. It is my generation’s responsibility to assist in veterans’ return to civilian life. And because so few of us can relate to their experience, our veterans deserve to be listened to and aided, not asked how many people they killed.

My grandpa joined the Navy in World War II as a mechanic on a submarine hunter, and was chief of an escort ship’s engine room during the invasion of Palau. I have an older cousin enlisted in the Army, assigned to provide psychological counseling to “Global War on Terrorism” veterans. Personally, I would never have considered attending college here if I hadn’t enrolled in St. Thomas’ Air Force ROTC program. I’m still a member of the Air Force Association.

During my sophomore year, I helped found St. Thomas’ Silver Wings chapter. It’s a student organization emphasizing military-civilian community service projects, open to new members from any background. In addition, the VA offers many voluntary service programs and always accepts donations of time or money. My mom works at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, and has told me about the pathetic state of many veterans. Clearly some of them could benefit from our assistance.

According to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, President Woodrow Wilson spoke to the first observance of what would eventually become Veterans Day in 1919 when he said, “the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory.”

If you see a uniform on campus or anywhere else, thanking the people for their service is one way to show your gratitude and there are other ways to give thanks too. Supporting our troops is something we can all agree on, but actions are more supportive than words will ever be.

Zack Thielke can be reached at