It was just a day.
I don't remember exactly when I started to realize what a "veteran" was. Of course I knew that my grandpa had been in WWII, but he wasn't a veteran, he was Grandpa. I knew that I had aunts and uncles in the Air Force and Army, but they were people who lived a long ways away and I didn't really know them. Sometimes Grandpa put on his funny-looking Legion hat and went to carry a flag in a parade. He considered it a big honor, but I didn't really know why.
I gradually realized that I knew more people who had military experience than I thought. Both grandfathers, most of my uncles on my dad's side, nearly everyone on my mom's side of the family -- they'd all served, quietly and without fuss. A lot of my dad's friends were introduced with a whispered tag "he was in Vietnam."
The day after I turned 17 I found myself staring across a big metal desk at the recruiter from the local Army National Guard unit. He needed my father's signature before I could join as I was underage. Since my dad was the Scoutmaster for the Boy Scout troop in town and I didn't want to drag the recruiter ten miles out to the farm, it seemed natural to bring the recruiter to the Boy Scout meeting that night.
So I officially joined the Army National Guard at a Boy Scout meeting.
Oddly enough, it was well after I had gone through Basic Training and AIT, graduated from high school, and had a year or two of college history classes under my belt before I started to realize what those in the generations before me had done. While I certainly knew of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, I knew of them in an abstract way. I don't really remember the Vietnam war -- I was six in 1974. (My generation really never knew about Vietnam. We were too young to remember it, but when I was in high school the war had just ended ten years previously, so it wasn't in the history books yet...)
Once I was in college and took a few history courses, though, it started to coalesce in my mind.
The United States lost 405,399 men and women in WWII. That's a big number. My hometown has 8,000 people. In order to understand how many lives were lost in WWII I had to envision everyone in my hometown dying, then multiplying that by 50. It's a number that I found hard to comprehend. Then I learned that there were over 670,000 wounded in WWII. That's over a million people, dead or wounded in a four-year period. That's an impact on society!
There were 13,277,307 Americans serving in the military during WWII. Again, that's over 13 million people in uniform over a four-year period. The men and women who served (including my grandfather and an uncle) came from all walks of life, but united for a common purpose.
When the war was over, they simply came home and went back to work.
The Korean War... There were 36,516 men and women lost in the "forgotten war," and 92,134 wounded. We cannot forget. We simply cannot forget the 4,759 who are missing in action in Korea.
Vietnam. 58,209 names inscribed on a wall in Washington D.C., 153,303 wounded. 2,489 MIA. Those who came home did not get welcomed; society mistook the soldier for the policy maker. A soldier's duty is to do what's asked of them, and those who served in Vietnam did.
266 men killed in Beirut. Forty in Panama. 300 in the Gulf War. 756+ in Afghanistan. 5,371+ in Iraq.
We've lost nearly 5,500 men and women in Iraq, but possibly the number to ponder is 46,132 wounded so far.
Each of these wars, and the deployments in between (31 lost in the Berlin Blockade, 43 in Somalia, 20 in Kosovo) were fought overseas, by men and women who, whether drafted or volunteer, raised their right hand and took an oath...
I, (name), do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.
No one who says that oath knows what will come in the months and years to follow, but everyone who takes the oath knows what MIGHT come to pass, and they take the oath nonetheless, most often with a mixture of fear and pride.
To those who have said those words -- THANK YOU. Even in peacetime, a soldier endures years of training, routine, time apart from family... In times of war, well, I can't imagine.