Opinion: See Beyond the Stereotypes This Veterans Day

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A U.S. military combat veteran stares at a name on the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington on November 11, 2014. Larry Downing/Reuters

Veterans Day originated to acknowledge the peace and tranquillity that follows the crucible of war. Congress enacted a holiday known as Armistice Day to commemorate the end of World War I on November 11, 1918. Following World War II, the administration under President Dwight Eisenhower, a veteran himself and the key leader in the Allied victory in Europe, changed the name to honor those who served in the military, be it in the preparation, trial, tribulation or triumph of war, or in the peace that followed.

My name is Jon Davis, a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, veteran of two tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom and honorably discharged in 2008. I'm now a teacher and writer focusing on military and veteran affairs, as well as the conflicts of the Middle East. I'm deeply honored that Newsweek would invite me to speak on behalf of veterans across the United States and military personnel across the globe.

I've been asked to share the veteran's experience. To me, the difference is negligible. Like other Americans, every morning I go to work. I come home to enjoy the same shows as you. I kiss my wife and pet my overly effeminate dog. I like dinner with my incredibly nerdy friends. I enjoy yard work and hate snakes. Besides a haircut I've worn since boot camp, there are no outward signs that I was once a combat marksmanship instructor, or once a fire team leader in Iraq. Once, I was a warrior. That seems another life ago. My service will always be part of my identity, as is the case for all of us.

When asked what it's like to serve, I've told people that there are periods of intense pride mixed with a sense of entitled arrogance, followed by periods of massive disillusionment, followed yet again with a calming pride in your achievements and the meaning that they had. At times, soldiers feel like the saviors of all humanity. At other times we question if anything we have done or are doing is right or had any meaning at all. Then there are periods of intense resentment toward the civilian population for not taking part in what we experienced, as well as the burdens we carry to this day.

Today, many people will thank a veteran for their service. They will "like" posts featuring veterans. They'll cheer as veterans sing at football games. Most people, I believe, are sincere. Many are carrying out a ceremony or social obligation. Some consider the "worship" of service people to be childish, and some call for an end to compulsory patriotism. We have been attacked for our service and blamed for the leadership of an entire nation. Politics aside, I believe most people appreciate the service of military personnel. Tomorrow, however, few are likely to continue considering veterans or their value to society.

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In Focus

Photos: Salute to Veterans in Annual New York City Parade

Around 600,000 spectators were expected at Tuesday's annual Veterans Day Parade in New York City, which had the theme "Land of the Free, Home of the Brave."
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Times are very different now than in 1945. There were more than 16 million veterans of World War II alone. More than 12 percent of all Americans were active participants in that great world war. Everyone was intimately tied to the lives of America's warriors. Now, counting all living veterans since WWII, veterans account for less than 6 percent of the total U.S. population, based on 2013 U.S. Census data, and only 0.6 percent of Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan since 9/11, according to estimates by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies' report on the needs of returning veterans. That means that if you are reading this, you probably don't know someone who took part in those wars.

The decreasing number of veterans has culminated in a country with a severe cultural disconnect between its citizens and those serving in military roles. Warriors are misunderstood and kept at a polite distance. I can't speak to why exactly. Perhaps out of respect, fear or simply not knowing what to say. Probably some combination thereof. Stereotypes influence others people's perception of veterans, since so few can really identify with us. Movies, television and the news all paint conflicting images; soldiers are either brave knights crusading for righteousness or barbarians off to rape, plunder and pillage. These two realities can't exist together rationally, but such portrayals shape our perceptions nonetheless.

Most damaged by these portrayals are prospects in the civilian job market. Since 2009, veteran unemployment has outpaced national unemployment by more than 3 percent. Last year there were reportedly 722,000 unemployed veterans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The reasons for such unemployment are plentiful: an economy where new jobs are geared against veteran demographics, stereotypes that veterans lack independent thought, the inability of unknowledgeable managers to understand their job skills, or, worse, negative biases about the likelihood of veterans experiencing PTSD, and the possibility that they might "go postal" once hired, going from security providers to security threats. Alienation from their own society is one of the toughest obstacles that transitioning veterans continue to face.

Today, while you consider thanking a veteran, please also take a moment and consider doing more. Get to know them. Listen. Perhaps a job application will even pass your way. Read it. On the first peacetime Veterans Day in an era of warfare, don't just thank a veteran. Welcome them back to the real world.

Jon Davis is a writer and blogger supported by follower contributions made possible through the arts and media crowdsourcing platform Patreon. He writes on the topics of military and Middle Eastern affairs at Quora. To read more about Davis and his work for veterans, please visit his Patreon support site.

Opinion: See Beyond the Stereotypes This Veterans Day | U.S.