Ever Stressed About What To Say To Veterans? One Vet Explains Exactly What He'd Like To Hear.

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I admit, I feel a little overwhelmed thinking about what to say to my family and friends who have served in the military. I feel like I never know exactly what to say. I really don't want to offend anyone, so I usually say some cliche phrase — or worst yet, nothing at all. I know I'm not alone. But, surprise! It's actually not that complicated.

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[Applause]

Wes Moore: I'm excited to be here to speak about Vets, because I didn't join the Army because I wanted to go to war. I didn't join the Army because I had a lust or a need to go overseas and fight. Frankly, I joined the Army because college is really damn expensive and they were going to help with that. And I joined the Army because it was what I knew and it was what I knew that I thought I could do well.

I didn't come from a military family. I'm not a military brat. No one in my family ever had joined the military at all and how I first got introduced to the military was when I was 13 years old and I got sent away to military school, because my mother had been threatening me with this idea of military school ever since I was eight years old.

I had some issues when I was coming up and my mother would always tell me, she's like, "You know, if you don't get this together, I'm going to send you to military school." And I'd look at her, and I'd say, "Mommy, I'll work harder." And then when I was nine years old, she started giving me brochures to show me she wasn't playing around, so I'd look at the brochures, and I'm like, "Okay, Mommy, I can see you're serious, and I'll work harder." And then when I was 10 and 11, my behavior just kept on getting worse. I was on academic and disciplinary probation before I hit double digits, and I first felt handcuffs on my wrists when I was 11 years old.

And so when I was 13 years old, my mother came up to me, and she was like, "I'm not going to do this anymore. I'm going to send you to military school." And I looked at her, and I said, "Mommy, I can see you're upset and I'm going to work harder." And she was like, "No, you're going next week." And that was how I first got introduced to this whole idea of the military because she thought this was a good idea.

I had to disagree with her wholeheartedly when I first showed up there because literally in the first four days, I had already run away five times from this school. They had these big black gates that surrounded the school and every time they would turn their backs, I would just simply run out of the black gates and take them up on their offer that if we don't want to be there, we can leave at any time. So I just said, "Well, if that's the case, then I'd like to leave." And it never worked and I kept on getting lost.

But then eventually, after staying there for a little while and after the end of that first year at this military school, I realized that I actually was growing up. I realized the things that I enjoyed about this school and the things that I enjoyed about the structure was something that I'd never found before, the fact that I finally felt like I was part of something bigger, part of a team, and it actually mattered to people that I was there, the fact that leadership wasn't just a punchline there, but that it was a real, actually core part of the entire experience. And so when it was time for me to actually finish up high school, I started thinking about what I wanted to do and just like probably most students, had no idea what that meant or what I wanted to do.

And I thought about the people who I respected and admired. I thought about a lot of the people, in particular a lot of the men, in my life who I looked up to. They all happened to wear the uniform of the United States of America. So, for me, the question and the answer really became pretty easy. The question of what I wanted to do was filled in very quickly with saying, "I guess I'll be an Army officer."

So, the Army then went through this process and they trained me up and when I say I didn't join the Army because I wanted to go to war, the truth is, I joined in 1996. There really wasn't a whole lot going on. I didn't ever feel like I was in danger. When I went to my mom, I first joined the Army when I was 17 years old, so I literally needed parental permission to join the Army. So, I kind of gave the paperwork to my mom, and she just assumed it was kind of like military school. She was like, "Well, it was good for him before, so I guess I'll just let him keep doing it," having no idea that the paperwork that she was signing was actually signing her son up to become an Army officer.

And I went through the process and again the whole time still just thinking, this is great, maybe I'll serve on a weekend or two weeks during the year, do drill and then a couple years after I signed up, a couple years after my mother signed those papers, the whole world changed. And after 9/11, there was an entirely new context about the occupation that I chose. When I first joined, I never joined to fight, but now that I was in, this is exactly what was now going to happen.

And I thought about so much about the soldiers who I eventually had to end up leading. I remember when we first, right after 9/11, three weeks after 9/11, I was on a plane heading overseas, but I wasn't heading overseas with the military. I was heading overseas because I got a scholarship to go overseas. I received a scholarship to go overseas and to go study and live overseas. And I was living in England and that was interesting, but at the same time, the same people who I was training with, the same soldiers that I went through all my training with and we prepared for war, they were now actually heading over to it. They were now about to find themselves in the middle of places, the fact is the vast majority of people, the vast majority of us as we were training, couldn't even point out on a map.

I spent a couple years finishing graduate school and the whole entire time while I'm sitting there in buildings at Oxford that were literally built hundreds of years before the United States was even founded and I'm sitting there talking to dons about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and how that influenced the start of World War I, where the entire time my heart and my head were on my soldiers who were now throwing on Kevlars and grabbing their flak vests and figuring out how exactly do I change around or how exactly do I clean a machine gun in the darkness. That was the new reality.

By the time I finished that up and I rejoined my military unit and we were getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan, there were soldiers in my unit who were now on their second and third deployments before I even had my first. I remember walking out with my unit for the first time, and when you join the Army and you go through a combat tour, everyone looks at your shoulder because on your shoulder is your combat patch. And so immediately as you meet people, you shake their hand and then your eyes go to their shoulder, because you want to see where did they serve, or what unit did they serve with. And I was the only person walking around with a bare shoulder and it burned every time someone stared at it.

You get a chance to talk to your soldiers and you ask them why did they sign up. I signed up because college was expensive. A lot of my soldiers signed up for completely different reasons. They signed up because of a sense of obligation. They signed up because they were angry and they wanted to do something about it. They signed up because their family said this was important. They signed up because they wanted some form of revenge. They signed for a whole collection of different reasons and now we all found ourselves overseas fighting these conflicts.

And what was amazing to me was that I very naively started hearing this statement that I never fully understood because right after 9/11, you start hearing this idea where people come up to you and they say, "Well, thank you for your service." And I just kind of followed in and started saying the same things to all my soldiers. This is even before I deployed but I really had no idea what that even meant. I just said it because it sounded right. I said it because it sounded like the right thing to say to people who had served overseas. "Thank you for your service," but I had no idea what the context was or what that even, what it even meant to the people who heard it.

When I first came back from Afghanistan, I thought that if you make it back from a conflict, then the dangers were all over. I thought that if you made it back from a conflict zone, that somehow you could kind of wipe the sweat off your brow and say, "Whew, I'm glad I dodged that one," without understanding that for so many people, as they come back home, the war keeps going. It keeps playing out in all of our minds. It plays out in all of our memories. It plays out in all of our emotions.

Please forgive us if we don't like being in big crowds. Please forgive us when we spend one week in a place that has 100% light discipline, because you're not allowed to walk around with white lights, because if anything has a white light, it can be seen from miles away, versus if you use little green or little blue lights, they cannot be seen from far away. So please forgive us if out of nowhere, we go from having 100% light discipline to then a week later being back in the middle of Times Square and we have a difficult time adjusting to that. Please forgive us when you transition back to a family who has completely been maneuvering without you and now when you come back, it's not that easy to fall back into a sense of normality because the whole normal has changed.

I remember when I came back, I wanted to talk to people. I wanted people to ask me about my experiences. I wanted people to come up to me and tell me, "What did you do?" I wanted people to come up to me and tell me, "What was it like? What was the food like? What was the experience like? How are you doing?" And the only questions I got from people was, "Did you shoot anybody?" And those were the ones who were even curious enough to say anything because sometimes, there's this fear and there's this apprehension that if I say anything, I'm afraid I'll offend, or I'm afraid I'll trigger something, so the common default is just saying nothing. The problem with that is then it feels like your service was not even acknowledged, like no one even cared. "Thank you for your service," and we move on.

What I wanted to better understand was what's behind that, and why "Thank you for your service" isn't enough. The fact is, we have literally 2.6 million men and women who are Veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan who are all amongst us. Sometimes we know who they are, sometimes we don't but there is that feeling, the shared experience, the shared bond where we know that that experience and that chapter of our life, while it might be closed, it's still not over.

We think about "Thank you for your service," and people say, "So what does 'thank you for your service' mean to you?" Well, "Thank you for your service" means to me, it means acknowledging our stories, asking us who we are, understanding the strength that so many people, so many people who we serve with, have, and why that service means so much. "Thank you for your service" means acknowledging the fact that just because we've now come home and we've taken off the uniform does not mean our larger service to this country is somehow over. The fact is, there's still a tremendous amount that can be offered and can be given.

When I look at people like our friend Taylor Urruela, who in Iraq, loses his leg. He had two big dreams in his life, one was to be a soldier, the other was to be a baseball player. He loses his leg in Iraq. He comes back and instead of deciding that, well, now since I've lost my leg, that second dream is over, he decides that he still has that dream of playing baseball and he starts this group called VET Sports, which now works with veterans all over the country and uses sports as a way of healing.

People like Tammy Duckworth, who was a helicopter pilot and with the helicopter that she was flying, you need to use both your hands and also your legs to steer and her helicopter gets hit and she's trying to steer the chopper, but the chopper's not reacting to her instructions and to her commands. She's trying to land the chopper safely but the chopper doesn't land safely, and the reason it's not landing safely is because it's not responding to the commands that her legs are giving because her legs were blown off. She barely survives. Medics come and they save her life but then as she's doing her recuperation back at home, she realizes that, "My job's still not done." And now she uses her voice as a Congresswoman from Illinois to fight and advocate for a collection of issues to include Veterans issues.

We signed up because we love this country we represent. We signed up because we believe in the idea and we believe in the people to our left and to our right and the only thing we then ask is that "Thank you for your service" needs to be more than just a quote break, that "Thank you for your service" means honestly digging in to the people who have stepped up simply because they were asked to and what that means for us not just now, not just during combat operations, but long after the last vehicle has left and after the last shot has been taken.

These are the people who I served with and these are the people who I honor. So, thank you for your service.

[Applause]

There may be small errors in this transcript.
About:

Wes Moore is an Army combat veteran, youth advocate, and award-winning author. He gave this talk at a TED@250 session called "War Stories." If you like what he had to say and want to hear more, consider Liking him on Facebook. Thumbnail image via Wikimedia Commons.

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