Liz Burnham at the 2009 Hawkeye Ball

Lt. Elizabeth Burnham at the 2009 Hawkeye Ball

Names on memorial plaques. Silver-haired heroes who lead our Memorial Day parades. Police officers who stayed the course of order, uniform and service. Tattoo’d bikers and troubled souls who had difficulty acclimating back to civilian life. Cliched and real, they’re Hollywood caricatures of what it means to be a veteran rooted in a singular reality.

Perhaps we could take a different tack? For a more subtle perspective, GOOD Morning Wilton asked Elizabeth Burnham–WHS class of ’01 and lieutenant in the U.S. Navy until September–for her thoughts about her first Veterans Day. More profound and meaningful than any other kind of commemoration we could have researched and written ourselves, her words are vital, raw and true. We’re honored and humbled to be able to print them today.

I got out of the Navy six weeks ago. “Got out.” What a strange choice of words.

In the transition assistance class I was required to attend, we talked about how our identity subtly shifted with our service. During exercises and deployments, our private and social lives merged with our work lives until I was LT “Bacon” Burnham, Personnel Officer and E-2C Hawkeye Naval Flight Officer, more than I was Liz Burnham of Wilton, CT. Even off-duty, at home, we could never totally forget – there was always the chance of being recalled to duty, being denied leave, or being identified first by our profession were a conversation misconstrued or an accident to occur.

Those on the inside internalized that. When I signed my discharge paperwork, I was suddenly on the outside…kind of. My social circle is 80-percent military, and professional news still finds me–the current classified-information-for-hookers scandal is flooding my Facebook feed. I’m trying to cultivate a different identity, though, so I consciously distance myself.

I am no longer a naval officer. I am an unemployed grad student, a freelance writer, and reluctantly, a veteran. I haven’t figured it out yet. I reference my experience in the Navy constantly, even when I don’t want to and when being a student is sufficient. It leads to people thanking me for my service, something I find profoundly awkward. I know that I’m a symbol of all those who aren’t there to thank, but I don’t think I did enough to deserve it.

Six Word War, a “crowd-sourced war memoir” edited by West Point graduates Mike Nemeth and Shaun Wheelwright and due to be published this month, has collected thousands of short stories from veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Themes can be picked out:  bitterness, boredom, and gallows humor. Every once in a while, I find a story that resonates personally.

“Never deployed; uncomfortable with thank yous.” Mike Nemeth, Six Word War

“Sat in TOC, still feeling guilty.” Unknown, Six Word War

The danger never caught up to me. How could it? Between the quirks of naval assignments and my timing, I barely deployed. As friends and colleagues returned to Iraq and Afghanistan for the second, third, fourth time, and as they racked up their seventh, eighth, and ninth Air Medals for sorties flown in-country, my squadron sat at home, upgrading avionics and logging simulator time. 

I read news accounts about dozens of fatal aircraft crashes, never once seeing a name I knew personally. My worst night was stateside, when I heard a sister squadron had a midair collision and I couldn’t positively determine that none of my friends were flying. That night, I glimpsed the frozen terror and grief of a military death, but by morning better news had come. The two planes were a loss, but the worst injury was mild hypothermia from ejecting into a mountainside snow bank. 

We’ve been at war since my second week of ROTC. The past twelve and a half years of my life has been tied to the military. Yet I escaped with minimal damage, while nearby families hang gold stars in their windows. I left without the repeated deployments or the close and continuing exposure to PTSD and death, without the sacrifice that I’m being thanked for. 

The thanks feel superficial and contrived, a mandatory comment that doesn’t make an effort to recognize the contributions of an individual service member. I didn’t join to be lionized by an adoring public, nor did I need the recognition to make up for shortfalls elsewhere. The military pay system compensated me specifically for the dangers of flying and being in a combat zone, the inconvenience of moving, the cost of living at my duty station, and each day spent away from home on official business, while federal and state laws provided combat zone tax exclusions, property and income tax exceptions, and a host of DMV benefits. The Navy paid for my undergraduate degree, and the Post-9/11 GI Bill will pay for my graduate degree. I joined the Navy; I saw the world. I need no thanks for doing a job that provided me a fresh challenge every day, exceptional benefits, and a chance to lead Sailors.

So, this Veterans Day, instead of simply thanking a veteran for their service, learn their stories. There are 1.4 million people currently on active duty, another 1.1 million in the Ready Reserve, and approximately 22 million veterans. Each of them has something unique to share, blending patriotism, pragmatism, and politics. Perhaps one will highlight a particular issue facing service members, veterans, and their families, or perhaps just tell a tale of camaraderie and hilarity in the face of danger.

Assist local support groups for veterans. The Madaras family and Kick for Nick continue to support transitional and permanent housing for veterans through ABRI/Homes for the Brave. Habitat for Humanity also has a Veteran’s Build program here in Fairfield County. A benefit for both foundations was held this past Saturday, and volunteers are always welcomed. 

Think critically about the armed forces, and express your opinions by exercising your right to vote and contacting Representative Jim Himes and Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy. The budgetary crisis is posing critical risks to the military status quo. Service chiefs testified to Congress last week that they can no longer do more with less. The national discussion must turn to the strategic objectives we can afford to deprioritize, and the level of risk we are willing to accept. 

We veterans fought for a country we believe in, but we need citizens to fight for us.

Elizabeth Burnham graduated from Wilton High School in 2001. She was commissioned in 2005, awarded her wings as a Naval Flight Officer in 2008, and deployed the same year with VAW-116 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Following her tour with VAW-116, she worked briefly for the Commander, Airborne Command & Control and Logistics Wing, then moved to a staff position in Washington, DC. Her personal decorations include an Air Medal. She separated from the Navy in September.