November 9, 2011

USA: Veterans bring home special qualities of self-discipline, optimism

SEATTLE, Wa / The Seattle Times / Opinion / November 9, 2011

Guest columnist Mike Gregoire, Washington's first gentleman, reflects on his own experience as a veteran and encourages readers to appreciate the qualities veterans develop from their experience, including those that make a good employee.

By Mike Gregoire
Special to The Times

FOR me, almost every day is Veterans Day. I know that sounds a little grand, but it's the truth. Much of my Vietnam tour was as a convoy commander and platoon leader. It profoundly shaped who I am today. And when my wife, Chris, became governor, I volunteered to help our 670,000 veterans and their families.

In partnership with Chris, I spend a lot of time helping with serious issues. Too many veterans with real skills can't find jobs in this economy. Many suffer loss of limbs, head injuries and other severe wounds. Many have post-traumatic stress and need care. Many are homeless. I'm grateful for our Department of Veterans Affairs and Director John Lee for the work they're doing to ease these and other problems.

But today I don't want to dwell on the problems. Because amid all the suffering, we keep missing something really good and fundamental about our veterans. Something we've had since the Revolutionary War.

When our veterans come home, they weave into the fabric of our society the sturdy threads of optimism, self-discipline and appreciation for what we have. Those traits are a powerful but often unseen presence in our national character. They make us better.

Optimism? Yes. When our "freedom bird" landed at Travis Air Force Base in 1971, I was one happy man. I was alive! There was no random mortar shell to crash through my tent. I could take a hike without worrying about land mines. I had come from a chaotic country of muddy roads and fear of tomorrow into a rich, beautiful land of clean streets and comfortable people. I was safe! And whatever problems life offered was nothing compared with what I left behind.

That kind of optimism — the kind veterans bring home — is the kind that lasts. It gets veterans and those around them through life's rough spots. It finds its way into the workplace, the community and society every single day.

Self-discipline? In Vietnam I had to perform, and there were no mulligans. I got one chance to learn things, and that took real discipline. I came home much clearer about who I was, what I wanted to be and the character skills to get there.

Some employers will tell you, veterans not only bring specialized skills to the job, they're less likely to get discouraged, they don't whine, they just keep on keeping on. Why? Because they learned how to do it. I'll say it again: When you hire a vet, odds are you're hiring a person with value — veteran value.

Appreciation? Veterans home from war know better than anybody that war should be the last resort. It isn't a John Wayne movie. It's for real. War is a machine and it's random. If you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, it will kill or maim you and it doesn't matter who you are.

When I came back from Vietnam, we were still in the middle of the "peace movement." To me, and some fellow vets, some of it seemed a little shallow. Nobody asked our opinion because we had been on the ground in Vietnam and therefore were suspect. But if they had, I would have told them: True veterans love peace more than anybody. We know the alternative, and we appreciate that when the sky lights up with explosives, it's only on the Fourth of July.

So on this Veterans Day, you might ask a veteran if he's willing to answer a few questions:

Do you have a little perspective to share? How have you changed? Is there anything about our country you appreciate more? Can I help you get a job?

I'd bet most veterans will appreciate it, and it just might make your day. Finally, from my wife and me, thank you, veterans, for your service to our country.

Mike Gregoire is first gentleman of Washington state and an advocate for veterans.

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