I was sitting in a crowded waiting room at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Administration clinic in Houston, just waiting on my turn to see a doc. Next to me sat a man in a wheelchair, a blanket folded over the stumps where his legs used to be. He wore one of those black caps with the “Veteran” logo on it, with the name of the war he’d experienced listed below it. He didn’t offer to tell me how he’d lost his legs, and I didn’t ask — although I had a pretty good idea, considering where we were.

A TV on the wall was set on a news channel, and there was nothing good coming out of that screen. All the usual suspects: sleazy politics, unspeakable crime, children molested and abused. You know. Our daily dose of just some of the stuff that goes on in our country.

The vet next to me just watched, and then he slowly wheeled away in his chair with his head bowed and his eyes sad. I figured he’d gotten his fill of garbage.

And then I wondered how he felt about it all. I wondered: Does he ever think what he gave maybe wasn’t worth it?

All the men and women who have returned home from war with banged-up bodies and bruised minds — do they ever wonder why they bothered making any sort of sacrifice at all when the very country they swore to protect can’t keep the refuse stuffed down the sewer where it belongs?

How would you or I feel about it? If you’re a parent, think of how you feel when your own kids fail to notice all the things you do for them. Hurts, doesn’t it? I’ve been in the same place, wondering why my kids didn’t seem to appreciate any of my efforts. Then consider how the same situation would feel if you’d given up body parts to complete strangers, only to see them pretending you’ve done nothing.

I served an entire career in the Marine Corps, but whatever struggles I endured pale in comparison to others’. Still, I find myself wondering why in the world anyone would donate any parts of life or limb as a sacrifice for people who not only refuse to acknowledge it but also act as if they deserve having someone give up a pair of legs — or more — for them. I wonder how parents of those killed in action feel when seeing entire parts of our society dancing around in the slime with their health intact.

It’s disheartening, to say the least.

Then I hear someone thanking a veteran: “Thank you for your service.” I still love hearing it when someone says it to me all these years later.

I’ve also attended many a Veterans Day observance. The parades and tributes are beautiful, and the ceremonies I’ve visited at elementary schools are absolutely priceless. The appreciation those children show is enough to fill any vet’s old, cold heart. Those little ones may not understand everything about Veterans Day, but they do a better job of expressing gratitude than plenty of adults.

I sure hope the guy in the wheelchair in Houston gets to experience some of the same appreciative responses.

Of all the ways we can thank our vets, however, I feel there’s one better than the others. It sounds pretty simple, actually.

We need to make sure we’re worth the sacrifices. We need to do our best to make sure we’re not the reason someone wheels away in disgust and disappointment. They don’t owe us anything anymore, but we certainly owe them.

It’s not that hard. If we live our best lives, do whatever we can to make our communities better and express our appreciation for the country in which we live, we can be worthy of sacrifices. If any of those ideas are too much to ask, maybe the least we can do is try to avoid living as a pimple on society’s butt. Maybe at least act as if we appreciate having so many different freedoms to do and be what we want, and show at least some understanding that what we have came with a pretty steep price.

In short, try and find a way to deserve those gifts from others.

Yes, veterans, please accept my sincere thanks for your service. Count me as one of many who truly appreciate what you’ve done for all of us.

As for the rest of us, please consider trying to be a reason a veteran can feel proud of himself or herself for the benefits we’ve received thanks to their payments. Allow a vet to look around and feel as if what he or she did was worth something.

If we’d all try and do just that, we’d be doing an even better job of what we’re going to try and do on every Veterans Day.

We’d be finding one heck of a way to thank all our vets.

Gary Stallard is a regular contributor to the Opinion page of The Lufkin Daily News. His email address is garylstallard@yahoo.com.

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