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Opinion: Our veterans deserve more than just words

As a proud military brat, I have seen firsthand how some veterans are treated after their service. We can do better to celebrate those who serve our country

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A veteran salutes while taps is played during an event for National Vietnam Veterans Day in Layton on March 29, 2021.

A veteran salutes while taps is played during an event for National Vietnam Veterans Day in Layton on March 29, 2021.

Annie Barker, Deseret News

I am a military brat. It’s a title I wear with pride. 

My dad was a career Air Force officer, flew reconnaissance planes during Vietnam, got a master’s degree in linguistics, then taught French at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and English at the French L’Ecole de L’Air in Salon-de-Provence, France. I moved more than two dozen times before I left for college at age 17.

When my dad deployed to Vietnam, he was gone for an entire year. I was 4 years old. I had a dream so vivid that I can still recall it almost 55 years later. I dreamt that he returned home, just for one night. I thought it really happened until I was older and my parents assured me he had not gotten 24 hours of leave. 

When I was well into my adult years, I learned that when he did return home, it was to a nation who jeered his service. It was so bad that when he flew home on a commercial flight, he was put at the very back of the plane and not fed. The flight attendants told him they “ran out” of food. He said that at least he wasn’t spit upon like many of his friends were. At least today, we say “Thank you for your service.” 

Today, Veterans Day, will see restaurants offering free food, patriotic events and recognition of everyone who has ever served in our military. But simply saying “Thank you” one day a year isn’t enough. 

A U.S. Marine Corps veteran and friend of mine, Carl Downing, told me recently that “a veteran is a man or woman who has a deep love for country, a patriot. They have signed a contract that literally included the very real potential that the cost could include their own life. They serve all over the world, live in harsh and hostile conditions, leave loved ones behind, and they do it all voluntarily.”

“Voluntarily” does not mean it is without cost, however, to the veterans and those who love them, work with them and go to school with them. 

My daughter’s boyfriend was deployed from Hill Air Force Base to the Middle East in 2020, just as their relationship was starting to get serious. Even though his odds of dying while deployed were low, she had an anxious seven months, waiting for news of his safety every single day. 

I wrote recently of the suicide rates among veterans — it’s higher for veterans than the general public, and it’s higher for Utah veterans than veterans in general. Utah has a “SafeUTNG” app, designed to support members of the Utah National Guard and their families. 

There are also numerous national organizations set up to help veterans and their families. One is Mission Roll Call. After serving in the Marine Corps for six years, and one tour to Afghanistan, Cole Lyle returned home and suffered from severe PTSD, social isolation and difficulty reconnecting to civilian life. In a Hill profile piece he said that it “really was just the lowest point in my life, and I was two pounds of trigger pull away from being one of the statistics — a veteran’s suicide statistic — if it had not been for another Marine that intervened.”

Realizing that he couldn’t fight this battle on his own, and wanting to stop taking pills that made symptoms worse, Lyle looked into getting a service dog. At the time, the VA didn’t provide them as an alternative method of treatment, so Lyle paid more than $10,000 to secure and train his service dog, Kaya, who is a constant source of support and has truly become Lyle’s best friend. Lyle uses his story to write and advocate for the PAWS Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2021, which mandates the VA now provide service dogs for veterans with PTS.

Now serving as the executive director of Mission Roll Call, Lyle is dedicated to advocating on Capitol Hill for the 18 million veterans across this nation and ending veteran suicide through holistic care, community integration and greater access to quality health care.

Utah participates in the national “Purple Star” schools program that support children who relocate to new schools because of a military parent’s reassignment. I can’t even remember the number of schools I went to as a military dependent. I can count on one hand the number of friends from my growing-up years that I am still in contact with. There are commonalities that children growing up with military parents share among themselves that other kids often don’t. Being the new kid on the block is one of them. I did not graduate from high school with kids I’d known since kindergarten like my own children have. 

Whether or not we are part of a military family or have close ties to veterans, we cannot sit back, say “thanks” and rely on someone else to step up to support veterans. President John F. Kennedy had it right: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live them.” 

Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy.