Who Is A Veteran? How Can You Tell One?

Lester Tenney

Some veterans bear visible signs of their service; like a missing arm or leg, or maybe a jagged scar that all could see, or maybe that certain look in their eye.

Others may carry the evidence of being a Veteran inside them: maybe a pin holding a bone together, a piece of shrapnel remaining in the leg -or perhaps another sort of inner steel: the soul’s ally forged in the refinery of adversity.                                                                     Dr.  Tenney in 1941

You can't tell a vet just by looking. He could be the cop on the beat who spent six months in Saudi Arabia sweating two gallons a day making sure the armored personnel carriers didn't run out of fuel.

Or he could be the barroom loudmouth, whose overgrown frat-boy behavior is outweighed a hundred times in the cosmic scales by four hours of exquisite bravery near the 38th parallel in Korea.

She - or he – could be the nurse who fought against what seemed to be futility, and went to sleep sobbing every night during the two years spent in Viet Nam.

Or maybe the POW, who left home one person and came back another -or in many cases, didn't come back AT ALL.

Or maybe he is the drill instructor who has never seen combat -but has saved countless lives by turning slouchy, no-account rednecks and gang members into good Marines and soldiers, and teaching them that, ”No man will be left behind.”

Could it be the three anonymous heroes housed forever in The Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier whose presence at the Arlington National Cemetery must forever preserve the memory of all the anonymous heroes who died unrecognized on the battlefield or perished in the deep blue waters of our oceans.

Maybe he is the old guy bagging groceries at the supermarket -palsied now and aggravatingly slow - who helped liberate a Nazi death camp and who wishes all day long that his wife were still alive to hold him when the nightmares come.

Yes , the Veteran is an extraordinary human being - a person who offered some of his life's most vital years in the service of his country, and who sacrificed his ambitions so others would not have to sacrifice theirs. He is a soldier and a savior, a sword against the darkness, and he is nothing more than the finest, greatest testimony on behalf of the finest generation, of the greatest nation ever known. 

The Veteran is the one who signed a Blank Check … made out to the United States Government, promising to serve our countries needs for an amount up to and including the giving of his or her life. And many today in Iraq and Afghanistan. are still honoring that Blank Check that they signed.

And there are others who fought for America’s freedom and proudly wear their medals on their coat or vest on Veterans Day as a reminder of the price paid for freedom.

So remember, each time you see a Veteran who has served his country, just lean over and say, “Thank you for keeping our country free.” That's all that most Veterans want, and in most cases it will mean more than any medals that could have been awarded.

Yes, just having you know the real price paid for freedom, that’s the Veterans reward.


* Dr. Tenney is the last Commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor. This speech was given at high schools in Michigan on Veterans Day, 2009.