In 1969, when I was 22 and fresh out of nursing school, I impulsively joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. At the time, I was clueless about the war in the Vietnam, but I had this picture of myself caring for the wounded boys of my generation. Caught up in the romance of it all, I set off from Baltimore for basic training in Ft. Sam Houston, Texas. For 20 months I served as a nurse on the burn ward at Brooke Army Medical Center. I was never sent to Vietnam.
Because of my service for those 20 months, I may identify as a veteran. But nowadays I'm conflicted about that identity: "Veteran" is so often spoken in the same breath with "hero" and "sacrifice," neither of which apply to me. I'm also aware that some people feel strongly that "veteran" should be reserved for those who served in a combat zone.
Meanwhile, the older I get, the harder I find it to cope with the month of November and Veterans Day. Recently, while out for a pleasant breakfast with my husband, I was thrown into an emotional tailspin over an item on the menu: Free! Red-white-and-blue pancakes for all veterans and active duty military, Nov. 11th only! My long-suffering husband stared at his eggs and hash browns while I sputtered and ranted through my angry tears.
What is the matter with me?
I guess I'm upset that our nation has become so facile in thanking our vets — and our active duty military, too. We cloak our gratitude in knee-jerk patriotism. We hand out cheap badges of honor to anyone and everyone in a military uniform because they're "keeping America safe and free."
Don't get me wrong. I have always been, and forever will be, a passionate advocate for veterans. But what good does a national holiday do for our wounded veterans (it is my belief that anyone who has seen war up close is wounded) if at the same time we fail to accept the enormity of our responsibilities to care for them?
And I guess I'm upset that Armistice Day — which once occupied the 11th day of the 11th month on our calendar, commemorating the end of "the war to end all wars" — has been all but forgotten. On the first Armistice Day in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson spoke not only of "solemn pride" for those who gave their lives, but also of deep gratitude that victory had given America a chance "to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the council of nations." And in 1938 — before the outbreak of another terrible war — Congress passed a resolution recognizing Armistice Day in the language of "peace and good will and mutual understanding between nations."
Armistice (from Latin words for "arms" and "to cause to stand," meaning a truce): an old word that rings hollow for a nation still arming itself for war. In fact, that word "armistice" hasn't suited our purposes since 1954 when it was struck from the Act of 1938 and replaced with "Veterans," so as to recognize those who had fought in World War II and in Korea.
A day doesn't go by that some presidential candidate isn't going on about "fighting for our freedom" and staying tough, or sneering at diplomacy as though it were a weakness that puts everybody in danger. How quickly they pivot from toughness to thanking our brave men and women in uniform.
As for me, I will never forget the boys I cared for when I was 22. In honor of those who survived and in memory of those who died, I'm thinking armistice — such a beautiful word — and praying for peace.
Madeleine Mysko, a Baltimore poet and writer, is the author of "Bringing Vincent Home," a novel based on her experience as an Army nurse. She teaches at the Carver Center for the Arts and Technology in Towson. Her email is email@example.com.