We are nearing the end of one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in recent memory. As more and more Americans begin to turn their attention to what comes after Election Day, many are beginning to wonder: “How can we come together as a nation and move forward? Are we ready? Are we even capable?”
Whether or not we are ready, the simple answer is that we must. And a day of honor and remembrance for our nation’s veterans this Friday, just three days after Election Day, provides the perfect opportunity. Respecting our veterans’ service is not just a Democratic priority or a Republican priority: it is an American priority.
The problem today is that, while veterans like myself usually feel appreciated by our communities—the refrain of “Thank you for your service” is nearly ubiquitous—so many people who have not served themselves simply don’t understand us or our experience.
That’s why last year, rather than hold another ceremony or parade on Veterans Day, my office launched our nation’s first-ever Veterans Day Town Hall. Held in Marblehead, where I grew up, the event drew over 150 veterans and non-veterans alike who traveled from across the state for a simple yet powerful purpose: to share, and to listen.
The idea comes from Sebastian Junger’s bestselling book "Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging," and we worked closely with him to organize the event. In his book, Sebastian explores the deep bonds that develop amongst service members in wartime, explaining why so many of us miss our time in uniform despite the horrors of war.
The bonds and communal existence one experiences in the military, he argues, are an integral part of the human condition that has been largely lost amongst the comforts and individuality of modern-day life. We no longer rely on each other at home as we once did—and as we had to do every day overseas in order to survive.
Sebastian’s point is that what’s so unnatural for veterans is not actually the experience of our service, even in combat, but the difficulty of losing those bonds of camaraderie when we come home. Giving us the opportunity to explain this to the friends and family we fought to defend helps bring everyone in the community closer together.
The experience was remarkable. During that first Town Hall, veterans of every major conflict since World War II told stories from their own service. Brendan, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, described his year in the treacherous Korengal Valley and what it was like to lose a close friend.
Austin, who served in Korea, urged his fellow veterans to seek help for post-traumatic stress rather than trying to beat it on their own, citing his own night terrors that lasted for years after he returned from combat.
Others described what it felt like to volunteer for Vietnam, to be a native Arabic speaker serving in Iraq, or to stare at a dead and disfigured Taliban fighter and feel like you had more in common with him than your fellow Americans back home.
And one young, charismatic Special Forces operator named Kevin gave a detailed account of the time he was nearly killed during a ten-hour firefight in Afghanistan. His wife was in the crowd, barely able to look up to the stage as her eyes welled with tears. I don’t know if she had ever heard that story before.
Through these stories, the divide between veterans and everyone else grew a little narrower, and people in my hometown are still talking about it a year later. It was the single most meaningful thing I have done as a new Member of Congress.
This is the value of holding a Veterans Day Town Hall, and why I am again hosting one on Veterans Day, at Abbot Hall in Marblehead at 11 am, and I am also working to encourage others to host them across the nation. For veterans, it is a chance to share some of our most difficult memories with a public that has been largely spared the horrors of war. For everyone else, it is an opportunity to understand and connect with those who have served in a way that “Thank you for your service” can never approach.
For all of us, it is an opportunity to come together. And we need that now more than ever.