Honoring Our Veterans
Message from the headmaster
This Veterans Day morning we had a special guest in morning chapel.
Matt Peters ‘95 is a member of our Information Technology Team, and served for many years in the United States Navy, including at the Naval submarine base in Groton, Connecticut. Matt read an original poem that interlaced flashes of his experience—including real trauma, mundanity, and surprise in recognizing the kindness of an adversary—with the refrain “Don’t thank me,” ending with fervent gratitude for his fellow “bubbleheads” (Navy slang for submarine operators): “I thank YOU.”
I am moved by Matt’s poem not only because it expresses a truth about what our brave citizens who serve and sacrifice sometimes endure psychologically and socially; but also, about the complexity of our feelings of gratitude about that sacrifice. But there is no question that what the members of the armed forces of this country do is brave and selfless, and that it shows, at its root, an understanding of our true responsibility for one another, which we need right now as much as ever.
Veterans Day was first celebrated on the anniversary of the end of the First World War—November 11th, 1919—known then as Armistice Day. We’re accustomed to the concept of world war these days, but at that time the conflict was called “The Great War,” or “the war to end all wars,” because it happened on a scale and with an intensity that seemed to people at the time to be apocalyptic. It also introduced a level of human cruelty and anonymity that had certainly existed, but had not been part of our narrative about ourselves as supposedly “civilized” societies. The use of chemical weapons in particular marked the demise of a certain image of individual heroism descended from knights in shining armor and the beginning of a new understanding of our capacity to ignore each other’s humanity. So getting through the Great War felt decisive—as if we could get all warring out of our system once and for all. In fact, the orchestration of the Great War’s ending on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month was meant to symbolize that we were saving our civilization just in time, at the last possible hour.
That of course didn’t happen, and most these days would say that it is actually intrinsic to our humanity to fight each other. I don’t know that I agree. Certainly the fact that there was a second world war, and one whose central evil was the failure of people to see each other’s humanity, suggests that the first war didn’t teach us the lessons we hoped it would.
I would like to think that one of the things we do here at the Academy, one of our reasons for being and a central part of our mission, is to assert that culture matters and can determine how we treat each other. That we can in fact see and celebrate and be grateful for each other’s humanity and differences. That where you were born does not decide your allegiance or values—instead, you decide those based on what you find worthy and good. Our culture here is centered around an understanding that it is actually possible, and ideal, to love, respect, show kindness to, and support one another as we look to live in common and be a strong community with a strong bond. That is precious to me and I hope it is to you as well.
Our most famous alumnus, Calvin Coolidge, called Vermont “this brave little state” because the people here are willing to stand up for what they believe is right, and are willing to stand together for the good of all. That may be why Vermont, it turns out, has many veterans compared to other states, and is home to many people who chose and still choose to serve their country in the armed forces.
Many Academy alumni and a good number of faculty and staff are veterans or active service people, and they will tell you that it is a powerful thing to serve. But it’s important to remember that there’s a reason our fellow citizens serve in this way and in so many others—because it matters that we are able to live together, stand together, and be free together. That isn’t something that comes easily or naturally, but must be learned, then cultivated and cherished. It’s something we want students to learn here: that we will fight for what we believe in and for our common good, but that we are most powerful when we stand together and agree not to fight but to cooperate and work in concert. That is the gift our veterans give us, and I salute them today and ask you all to join me in that salute.
Today and over the next few days there will be some celebrations of Veterans Day in St Johnsbury—and our own band is participating in some of those, which makes me very happy. As they play, let’s think of Mr. Peters and of all of our veterans, think of them and of what we value. Let’s let this celebration remind us of what we owe to each other and who we want to be as a community—to face the world and make it better.
Dr. Sharon L. Howell