Tara McClary Reeves: Thank you, veterans, and the loved ones who are there for you

“Thank you for your service.” That’s how my husband and I trained our three children to greet a man or woman in U.S. military uniform, regardless of whether it was Veterans Day. We also stressed the importance of being just as intentional about thanking and celebrating the spouses who quietly serve alongside such national heroes.

Why? Our children’s grandfather, a Vietnam veteran, wears a patch where his left eye used to be; his left sleeve swings empty. Only two fingers on his remaining hand work because of shrapnel fragments embedded within it.

To my dad’s credit, he remains positive and grateful in spite of all this. But while his tennis serve is astounding, and he plays golf, hunts doves, and gives the best hugs, he admits that buttoning his shirt, tying his shoelaces, shuffling a deck of cards, putting on socks, cutting steak, or spreading a pat of butter over a piece of bread — small things you and I take for granted — are big challenges for him. That’s why he is so thankful that God gave him my mom, Deanna McClary: a helpmate who assists him in such tasks and does so with love and good humor.

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Since daddy’s return home only months after they married, Mom determined to make his recovery and their remaining years together as happy as possible. This work began when he had to call out to identify himself to her at the hospital because his injuries had rendered him unrecognizable.

Immediately, she rushed to him and gathered his shattered, casted body to herself gently, ignoring the broken teeth, bloated lips, and the glaring scars across his face. From that point forward, each day, she not only tried to learn as much as possible about his care and therapy needs, but doggedly worked to cheer him on. To encourage and to rehabilitate. To remain as delighted by and committed to him as she’d been when he, the football coach who looked like a Greek god, first asked her — a South Carolina pageant queen — to be his bride.

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In time, this deep dedication to love in spite of adversity resulted in my own birth as well as that of my little sister. And as Christa and I grew up, we regularly witnessed this brave Marine and his wife work as a team, lean on the Lord, and allow laughter to diffuse tension. (In fact, I’ve even known Mom to tease Daddy with his eye patch on one of their lengthy seaside walks, shifting it from his left side to his right when a bikini-clad girl heads his way. (After all, he is, she assures him, just as handsome as ever.)

Moreover, many times I’ve watched my mother intercept people who stare at my father’s unusual appearance, a reaction that makes him understandably uncomfortable. “Would you like to know why his arm and eye are missing?” she'll ask. And then, every time she will kindly and proudly tell them of the sacrifice he made for our country. That he made for them.

Years of observing my parents cope with the military life’s lingering demands on our family has made me aware that all across our nation there are she-roes like mom (and he-roes) who work behind the scenes to support their spouses who serve. Who face all kinds of difficult things related to military affairs though they never joined it personally.

Some are young brides who saw their husbands off to bootcamp and now face the lonely task of trying to turn base housing into a welcoming home. Others are husbands whose careers have been placed on hold so they can navigate diaper duty and carpool lanes while their wives fly missions in the Middle East or head out to sea for months at a time. Still others spend agonizing days and nights wondering where that dearly loved Special Forces soldier is, aching with loneliness and trying not to give in to fear.

Some of these individuals will receive news that their sweethearts are missing, or that they will come home so changed that the household’s definition of “normal family life” must be forever altered too. This morning, wives of veterans will wash bed sheets wet with the emotional sweat brought home from some foreign battlefield and into their very beds through night terrors. Others will spend countless hours on the phone, making appointments at a VA hospital, only to have to patiently redial after communication is interrupted by technical problems for a third time in a day.

Such individuals receive no medals or service honors, though many deserve heavy decorations for a job well done. Others could be handed purple-heart equivalents for the unseen wounds they suffer while helping their combat warriors recover and rejoin civilian — and family — life. So, what can be done for these precious people behind the scenes? How can we show them our gratitude?

First, we must be on the lookout for chances to serve them as selflessly as they serve. So, locate the Veterans Affairs office in your area; then call it for ideas on how you can help your local military families practically. Suggestions may include volunteering at the VA hospital, running veterans to their medical appointments, or even delivering a family’s weekly groceries.

Second, the next time you hear about a military spouse in your community or church who is flying solo while the husband or wife is overseas, send a letter explaining your appreciation of their combined sacrifice. (Bonus points if you include a gift card to the movies, a day spa, or an ice cream parlor to boost morale during the long wait for deployment to end!)

Third, sit down with your little ones to craft a card celebrating a veteran family’s commitment to our country and each other. Then mail it, perhaps enclosing a financial gift to support a veterans’ affairs charity like Fisher House Foundation, Operation Heal Our Patriots, Gary Sinise Foundation, Patriots at the Beach, or Building Homes for Heroes. (Information on all these and other similar organizations is available online.)

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Finally, should you notice a serviceman and his wife out for a date at a table near your own, tell your server you’d like to pick up their tab.

Whatever specific actions you take, please join me and my family in making Veterans Day memorable both for the veteran and his or her faithful — though often underappreciated — spouse. Both are warriors worthy of honor.

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