What does "veteran" mean to you? [VIDEO]

Editor’s note: On April 20, 2011 while covering the conflict in Libya, Tim Hetherington and fellow photographer Chris Hondros were killed by Libyan forces in a mortar attack on the besieged city of Misrata. The website, TimHetherington.org exists for all who wish to share personal messages.

Accomplished journalists and filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington joined the Center this week for a special screening and discussion of their new documentary film Restrepo which chronicles the every day experience of troops in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, considered one of the most dangerous outposts in the U.S. military until it closed on April 14, 2010.

When asked how capturing the real experience of combat, boredom, and fear through the eyes of the soldiers themselves changed their understanding of the word “veteran,” both Junger and Hetherington responded in a very personal way:

“For me,” said Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and War, “when I was growing up, veterans were always older guys who’d fought in wars that I had heard about. Suddenly veterans became a completely different thing in my mind…It was guys I was friends with, guys I really worried about when I was back home between trips. These are now vets for me. That’s what the word means now.”

Hetherington, a photojournalist and cameraman behind the documentaries Liberia: an Uncivil War and The Devil Came on Horseback, responded by challenging our perceptions of the military received in the media: “We tend to reduce the soldiers that fight on our behalf to symbols, symbols of patriotic duty or symbols of economic necessity…we don’t, here back in society, really allow them to be the individuals with all the nuances, and feelings and emotions that they experience out in these theaters of combat.”

After viewing Restrepo and seeing war in such a raw and unmediated way, it’s tempting to question why anyone would willingly put themselves into the grim, chaotic and periodically terrifying experience of war. But I suppose that’s what makes being a veteran all the more remarkable. It takes an uncommon motivation and a unique person to preserve, protect and defend the constitutional values we all cherish.

The film screening and discussion were presented in conjunction with the Center’s feature exhibition, The Art of the American Soldier. The artwork in the exhibition, much of it created by soldier artists documenting their experience first-hand, has much the same impact as viewing the film: it brings you closer to the lived experience of combat and being a soldier. Visitors have been responding to the exhibition by participating in a letter-writing campaign, filling out postcards in the gallery, thanking troops for their service.

So this Veterans Day tell us what “veteran” means to you. Leave a comment here or, better yet, tell a solider in your own handwriting. Visit the Center and salute the troops by writing a personalized postcard.

Stefan Frank is the National Constitution Center’s Director of Digital Engagement and manager of Constitution Daily’s Twitter account @ConDailyBlog. Follow us!

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