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May 29, 2012

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Remembering and Learning from Our Heroes

By Mandie Sweetnam

    May is National Military Appreciation Month, and in it, Memorial Day. We’re given these hallmarks to honor and remember the soldiers - past, present and future - of our country’s armed forces. This Memorial Day, some of us will have had a three day weekend, some will have had to work and some will have gathered with family and friends for barbeques in the back yard.

Some are serving our country overseas, or at home. Then there are those who have paid the greatest price.  We remembered all of these heroes on this Memorial Day with gratitude and respect.

photo courtesy of Wesley Smith      

I often think back to one day in particular that really reminded me to stop and be thankful for all that I have and all that some have given up for our freedom and protection. Several years ago, while working as the volunteer manager for the Richmond SPCA, I was fortunate enough to welcome to the shelter a group of veterans who had all suffered traumatic brain injuries during their military career.

These men had been through so much. There was a long and challenging road to recovery ahead of them. As part of their recovery, they often visited non-profit organizations, and had wanted to visit the SPCA to see the animals and help out for an afternoon. They toured the facility and visited with the dogs and cats, genuinely and thoroughly enjoying their afternoon at the shelter.

As I got to know them, I appreciated their lighthearted nature, their enthusiasm for life, and their ability to enjoy the present. They joked and laughed and were so happy to be spending time with the animals and with each other. It was touching to see these men, on the brave road to recovery, enjoying themselves.

I also remembered how powerful animals can be in the healing process, especially dogs and cats. They have a way of making you happy the instant you see them, if you’re paying attention. They are simple, loyal and genuine. These soldiers did not take one minute of their time with them for granted. That afternoon, after we said our goodbyes and they left the shelter, I stopped and thought heavily about the experience I just had with these veterans.

I was so uplifted by their visit. They had served our country; sacrificing so much and returning home only to face the challenge of recovering from the wounds, seen and unseen, of war. Yet they were so full of life and hope for the future. They had undoubtedly been taught by their experiences that it was important to appreciate life’s little miracles; for instance, a dog.    

They reminded me of perspective. While I came to work every day, usually hurrying past the dogs with just a wave, I often forgot to stop and appreciate them; to appreciate everything around me; My family, my job, the animals, my freedom and my life.

About eight years ago, I welcomed home both of my brothers from the Marines. They had both served in Iraq and it was one of the most difficult times in my life, waiting for them to come back.

I remember the joy and relief I felt when they returned safely and I promised myself that I would never forget that, and I never have. It is so important that we remember the brave men and women who serve, have served and will serve our country.

Their job is difficult, their risk is great, their cause is noble. The soldiers I’ve met, the ones that I call brothers and those that we have lost are reminders that each day is a blessing. They are an inspiration to us all to seize the day and to be grateful for all that is around us.

This Memorial Day and every day, in honor of our military, please thank a soldier, pet a dog and try not to take a single day for granted.

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