Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Gratitude for Veterans: It's Not What You Think

Combat veteran Chuck Fulkerson, my friend and brother-in-law, told me one time that I would never be able to appreciate the gratitude you feel when someone you don't know gives you a pair of dry socks.

An army Ranger, Chuck served two long tours in the Vietnam War, earning numerous decorations including two Legions of Merit, two Bronze Stars, and the Vietnam Cross for Gallantry.  I did not serve in the military--in fact, I protested the war in Vietnam--and while neither of us passed moral judgment on what the other did in those years, it took us many years to be able to not just talk about military service, but what it meant.

He corrected me, once, on what it meant to serve. We'd been discussing the difference in service and decorations between, say, the American force who invaded Grenada in 1983 versus those who came under fire in Desert Storm in 1995. To me, there was a substantive difference. There wasn't to him. "It's not so much about dying for freedom or for your country," he said. "It's about putting your life in mortal danger in service to your country." The dying part, he said, was more about the person standing next to you when the shit hits the fan.

And that's when he told me about the gratitude one feels for a pair of dry socks, clearly referring to his wartime experience in Vietnam.

Most of us are grateful for something. We're grateful for friends and family, for what we have, for loving and being loved. We're grateful for the things that have accrued to us and give us joy. But the gratitude Chuck was talking about was something different. He was talking about the kind of gratitude that only can come from an unsolicited gift.

When the poet or songwriter or artist receives an inspiration for a good work, she or he first thinks about getting the work out there for everyone else. The poet's epiphany, the artist's sudden insight, is a gift from someplace, and the compulsion is to do something with it to make it expansive and available to all.

A second career with the National Guard followed active duty service, and Chuck went on to found the Veteran's Guest House in Reno, Nevada, to serve the spouses of veterans receiving treatment at the Veterans' Hospital, now serving a third generation of ex-soldiers. He went on to serve in the Nevada Department of Veterans Services, where he was instrumental in building the Nevada State Veterans' Home in Southern Nevada, which will soon begin serving a second generation.

Chuck died October 25 of this year.

But if he were still around, this is what he'd say: When it's time for the final count, it's not what you have that matters most, it's what you are. While you might be grateful for what you have, what others are grateful for when you're no longer around is what counts.

We read news stories of Malala Yousafzai giving her Nobel prize money to Pakistani schools, or poet Amy Clampit using her MacArthur Genius grant to fund residencies for young poets after her death, and we are not just humbled, but grateful. Gratitude that grows from a gift builds not just nations, but generations.

We'll never stop appreciating the transcendent value of gratitude, even when--especially when--it arises from a soldier's gratitude over the gift of a dry pair of socks from a stranger. Thank you, Chuck. For veterans everywhere, you told us what it's all about.

Col. Charles W. "Chuck" Fulkerson, 1935-2014