Yesterday we celebrated Veterans Day, a revered holiday in this country. It memorializes those men and women who have devoted a portion of their lives to military services, in one of the branches of the armed forces. Even though this may have been for only a relatively short period of time, perhaps just two or three years, and usually has occurred at an early stage of life, often when one is in his or her twenties, we still speak of them as veterans. And, again, this holds true, whether this military experience took place overseas, or whether one never left the shores of this country, or whether it involved combat situations or not. One is a veteran who has served for some period of time in the military.
The term “veteran” is an interesting one. It derives as an offshoot of the ancient Latin word “vetus”, meaning “old”. We may wonder why someone who spent just two or three years of his/her life in military service is called a veteran, if it took place many years ago when one was young, not old, and if it concerned only a relatively brief period of one’s life. It seems as if age has little or nothing to do with it.
However, when we think about it, there seems to be a link between certain kinds of experiences, and age. We may have met certain people who are still relatively young, but, as we say, seem “old” for their years. Perhaps life has been grueling for them, aging them in the process, even though they have lived for only a relatively short period of time. There are searing experiences leaving a powerful impact on people: these are often tragedies of one kind or another, such as the death of a loved one, especially a spouse or a child. Or it could have been a harrowing medical procedure entailing serious surgery or powerful medications. Perhaps it was a frightening event, such as a tragic accident on the highway, or at sea, or in the air. And, of course, reverting to the military experience again, it may have been exposure to intense combat.
All of these situations can leave their mark on us. They literally “age” us, making us appear older than we really are. In a sense, we have become veterans of life, and its effects show on us. We have aged before our years. The military service has this effect on all its veterans. It has entailed an experience for them, if only for a few years, that is never forgotten, and whose impact has never been erased or dulled. People who spent but a few years in the military recall it decades later, as if it were yesterday.
So a veteran, whether because of military service, or some other influential experience, is the product of a formative event. It shapes us, whether for good or for bad. And it never leaves us. An interesting comparison can be made between the impact of education on us, in the usual sense of that term (schooling, scholarship, the gaining of diplomas and degrees), and experience gained from life. And our educational institutions sometimes recognize this comparison, and allow for “life experience” to count for something that approximates an educational experience in determining one’s suitability and capability for acceptance into certain kinds of programs. In fact, there’s a memory component built into one with significant life experience that is more durable and formative of a person than the educational courses, with their lectures, computerized sharing, and reading lists. These latter events are more easily forgotten as one moves into later stages of life, no matter how interesting the books read or lectures heard during the school experience. The process of learning “pro vita” (for life) impacts us differently than that undergone just “pro schola” (for school).
The traditional Catholic educational philosophy recognizes this, and stresses the impact of a religious atmosphere in the school setting. While it is important to provide the student with up-to-date equipment, especially in this electronic age, this is not adequate to produce a student of the caliber of “a veteran”, as he or she graduates and moves out “into the world”. For there the “school of hard knocks” prevails as an experiential one, more indelibly engraved than a sheerly intellectual experience can provide, one never to be forgotten.
There are those who boast of being a veteran of a religiously imparted education not readily forgotten. Many a priest knows this from finding himself imbedded on an airplane seat, next to such a “veteran”, who readily launches into his memories of forty years ago as a schoolboy at St. James elementary school, patrolled by formidable looking Sisters, or his survival at a Catholic boys high-school where one or other Brother may have left something to be desired in terms of his efforts at teaching, but whose influence, at times physically enforced, has left an indelible mark for life. This kind of man is literally a veteran of the Catholic educational system, never to be forgotten, though Cicero may have faded into the background.