True service to vets means more than lip service

Jeff vonKaenel

“Thank you for your service.” It's five words. But not all sentences are created equal.

Many sentences are pleasant, perhaps even informative, but do not have to convey any weighty ideas. “Thank you for your service,” the sentence that Americans say to other Americans who have served in the armed services, is a sentence with a big job. Its job is communicate the deep gratitude that the people of our country have for those who have put themselves in harm’s way.

Politicians roll these words out repeatedly in speeches. We say them at the airport and many other places. It is sometimes an awkward interaction. There are two people involved, two Americans, who have enjoyed the same benefits and freedoms. One of us has risked life for our country—seen buddies die, been stuck in a Godforsaken desert, and perhaps even returned with horrible injuries. And the other has not. The words seem so inadequate and awkward. As someone who has not been called to serve my country in this way, even as I say the words, I feel the unfairness of our divergent life experiences.

Over the last year, I have had numerous opportunities to think about how we treat our veterans. Our company has a separate division, N&R Publications, that has been producing mininewspapers that veterans services organizations have been using for outreach. In the process of putting together these publications, I spend several hours talking with a group of veterans service officers, hearing about their jobs, the difficulties of navigating the system, and many stories, so many stories, about veterans.

They tell stories of veterans who were and are homeless. Veterans whose bodies are home but their minds are still in combat. Veterans who cannot figure out the system. These stories break your heart.

The veterans service officers so clearly love their fellow soldiers. I’d like to thank all of them for their service. Three who recently shared their stories with me are Hannah Williamson of Butte County, Suzi Vinci of Sacramento and David Perez of Reno. Their faces lit up like kids at Christmas when they told me about a vet who they were able to help.

After our meetings, I am inspired by the dedication and the work of the service officers. But I am disheartened when I think about how we, as Americans, are treating our veterans. So many are homeless. So many are not receiving the medical treatment that they so desperately need. I am left with another five-word sentence. “What is wrong with us?”

What is wrong with us? We know that many of our veterans are suffering. And we do not provide adequate resources to meet their needs.

When we say, “Thank you for your service,” we should put our money where our mouths are. We should make our own small sacrifice of paying higher taxes so we can properly take care of our vets. Then, rather than asking, “What is wrong with us?” we can show our gratitude with a four-word sentence, “We have your back.”

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.