By Brian Canning
The men and women in uniform — past and present — deserve our understanding and appreciation.
I am a veteran, and I’m very proud to say that even though I never set foot on a battlefield and never fired a shot in anger. Every day I sit at work, I have the honor and pleasure to sit next to another veteran, who just like me never went to war.
Sgt. Brian Canning circa 1978
At any given moment, less than 1 percent of our population is in uniform and active in our armed forces, and today — above all other days — I hope you would take a moment to think about the men in women currently in uniform and those who have served over the years.
In May or June of 1979, I went to the Veterans Affairs office in Washington, D.C., to register for my benefits. Although I was there by appointment, I was directed to a long line and knew it most likely would be a couple of hours before I would be talking to anybody, so I resigned myself to a long wait.
While waiting in line, the guy in front of me, blessed with the same long wait, struck up a conversation with me, and for the next two hours or so we talked about our various experiences.
Just like me, he was there to register for his benefits. He was an 11B, a grunt, one of those straight-legged infantry guys and had spent two and a half tours in Vietnam. He was an older guy of maybe 28, I remember that, and an E7 when he had been discharged. The other thing I remember about him was that he had a great sense of humour. I am naturally cranky, was very likely hung over that morning and though I never talk to strangers, he and I talked and talked and that two hours went by like nothing.
Did I forget to mention that this old warrior signing up for his VA benefits with me was a triple amputee? Did I forget to mention that as I fidgeted and impatiently waited my turn, he sat in a wheelchair, in a narrow corridor waiting for somebody who didn’t know or care about all that he had been through? When I finally was taken in to fill out and sign the papers for my benefits, I blew up at the poor guy trying to help me, asking him how he could sit there behind the desk getting fat while allowing a disabled veteran to sit in line for two hours. He offered to have me escorted from the building.
Many years later, I was a very proud parent among hundreds of proud parents at Constitution Hall on a hot as hell day in Washington, D.C., watching one of my daughters graduate from high school. These many years later I hardly remember the ceremony, but I remember something my daughter said afterward as we congratulated her and talked about where she would go from there — college or work.
I noted the five or six young men who they had introduced at the end of the ceremony who had volunteered for the Marines and for the Army, and she said, “Yea, they are all losers!” This was my own daughter who I love with all my heart. My wife’s parents and grandparents are all buried at Arlington National Cemetery. I didn’t know how to respond to that. My wife knew I was hurt and angered by it. We both just let it go, but most of these young men went to Iraq. These many years later, this tiny incident still bothers me.
Many years ago, I took my young son and daughter to the Vietnam Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. I cried uncontrollably to the point where I scared them, and when they asked me why I was crying, I tried to explain to them that I was just overwhelmed and saddened by the panels with 58,195 names. We placed a photo of my daughter at the foot of the panel that contained the name Richard Bruce Canning and went home.
The rate of divorce, drug addiction and suicide among active military personnel is at record levels and more than triple the national rate. The rate of divorce, drug addiction and suicide among veterans is nearly double the national rate. These men and women sacrifice much more than their time in uniform, and continue to sacrifice and suffer. There aren’t many among them who would look to you for sympathy or understanding, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t offer that sympathy or that you shouldn’t care or maybe even do something to help them.
Remembering veterans and those who are currently in uniform is way more than waving flags and dramatic photos. Today — and every day — I hope you will remember these very special men and women.