What to a Veteran (and teacher) is Veterans Day?


Before I was a teacher, I served my country as an officer in the U.S. Army. That’s me, age 22, pictured for an Army “Equal Opportunity Week” poster. I am on the poster because I was the only female officer in my battalion. When the Stars and Stripes photographer found me outside my platoon’s barracks in Darmstadt, West Germany, he told me he had come to take my picture. I asked him if I had a choice and he said no, so I smiled for the camera. A few weeks later I spotted copies of this posted around base.

I couldn’t help but grimace when I saw the poster’s caption, “Given Equal Opportunity, Women Are Achievers,” because I believe women achieve even without equal opportunity! Ironically, equal opportunity was one of the main reasons I entered the military. After college, I worked on a political campaign and when my candidate won, I received a promised job in the state capitol. However, I was paid less than the male campaign workers with the same experience. A few months later, I learned the military was offering direct commissions to qualifying women because there were no female graduates from West Point yet, and they desperately needed women officers in the post-Vietnam all volunteer army. Lured by the promise of equal pay and my desire to travel abroad, I applied and was accepted. Within a year, I found myself leading a platoon of 65 men on field training exercises in West Germany and providing combat communications to the headquarters of all the United States air defense for Europe.

I served during the Cold War and thankfully never saw combat, but we trained every day to be ready if war should come, knowing we would be on the front lines. It was a long time ago, but my military experience remains an important influence in my life. I met my husband through the military and our first child was born on an air force base. But just as important were the lessons I learned in the military that helped me become a good teacher after my time in service.

What to a Veteran is Veterans Day? It’s caring. As a military leader, you learn quickly to take care of your troops. Their needs come first, and you don’t ask them to do something you aren’t willing to do. To care for them, you get to know them. I learned about their background and family situation, their talents, and shortcomings to assess how I could help them become better soldiers. As teachers, we do the same thing with our students to help them learn and prepare them to become better citizens. The saying “they won’t care what you know until they know you care” is an expression of this principle for teachers.

What to a Veteran is Veterans Day? It’s adaptability. Military conditions can be tough, and soldiers must persevere to accomplish their mission. Adaptability is just as important for teachers who deal with circumstances that aren’t ideal. I recall teaching students in a roach-infested, moldy portable and recognize the challenges of teachers juggling hybrid classes during a pandemic, for example. Teachers, like soldiers, must adapt and reach goals despite the situation, lack of support or the noise around them. Why? Because what teachers do matters!

What to a Veteran is Veterans Day? It’s being accountable, no excuses. As a young officer, I was responsible for millions of dollars of equipment and, more importantly, for the lives of 65 men. It was important that I did what I said I would do and acted with integrity. Like all military officers, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution (not the President or any person). While there is no oath for teachers, we commit to teach a diverse group of students and help them become involved citizens of our country and we are accountable to students, parents, and our school community. Every citizen has obligations and responsibilities to maintain a representative democracy. For teachers, part of building better citizens should include teaching about rights and responsibilities in the Constitution.

On Veterans Day, we honor all those who have served in the military. Statistics show that the share of the U.S. population with military experience is declining. Today, less than 10% of Americans are veterans.[1] Gulf War-era veterans now surpass Vietnam-era veterans, and soon all the World War II and Korean War veterans will be gone. There hasn’t been a war in our own land for 150 years and so Americans have a limited sense of its effects. Many Americans don’t know a single person who serves on active duty. Why does this matter and what can teachers do about it? It is important for people to understand what veterans go through and to help them when they return. This is a way of giving back to those who serve.

What to a Veteran is Veterans Day? Not all veterans agree about their experiences, and individual people bring different memories to their time in service. Teachers don’t have to encourage students to serve in the military, but we can educate them about the sacrifices veterans make for their country. One year, I had my students interview a veteran and create a poster honoring them. These were displayed and the whole school participated in a Veterans Day walk to view them. The Library of Congress has a wonderful Veterans History Project that collects personal stories of American war veterans and has developed a terrific primary source set with a teacher’s guide. Teachers can invite a veteran to class (not just on Veterans Day) to speak to students about their time in service. If you know a soldier on active duty, you might arrange for students to write to them when they are deployed.

It doesn’t have to be complicated. When there’s a veterans event in your community, show up and support it. Inspire students by reading stories or essays of bravery or sacrifice (here is a list of picture books). Provide opportunities and guidance to help students serve their community. We certainly need courageous, empathetic kids willing to give of their time to make this nation better. I would like to think that celebrating Veterans Day helps each of us think about our own obligations to our country and how we can make it a better place with equal opportunity. Happy Veterans Day!

Laura Wallis Wakefield served four years on active duty in the U.S. Army and left the service with the rank of Captain. She taught history for more than 18 years in Florida before joining NCHE as a Program Coordinator in 2018, and has served as our Interim Executive Director and currently leads our LEAD program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/04/05/the-changing-face-of-americas-veteran-population/