by KAYLYN LANIER XIONG
Do you ever have a moment that just stops you cold and keeps echoing within you?
My father taught me by example to honor and revere our men and women in uniform. I can’t tell you how many times I would watch him stop when he saw someone wearing a hat or jacket that proudly displayed their veteran status. He would say, “Thank you for your service,” and sometimes my daddy would even take the bill from their hand at a restaurant. It was his way of saying, “We still see you.”
Recently, my husband and I stopped at a little family restaurant in the area. When we walked in, we saw a gentleman quietly sitting by himself, wearing a hat that said, “Vietnam Veteran.”
Instinctively, I told him, “Thank you for your service.”
His response… “Thanks for noticin’.”
His response rattled within me, bouncing off every part of my heart. I just couldn’t get away from it.
I told my husband that I really wanted us to pay for this man’s meal. He was surprised but loved the idea. The cashier raved about how much folks at the restaurant loved this veteran and how we could not have chosen a better guy.
He walked out with us simply to express his gratitude.
My husband is Hmong. I had never even heard of Hmong until I met him. But it is a small people group in southeast Asia who significantly helped American soldiers during the Vietnam war. When our men (many still practically boys) were lost in the ravaging terrain of foreign jungles, the Hmong guided them. Then when America pulled out of Vietnam, the enemy launched a savage genocide of the Hmong people. I am still learning and have barely scratched the surface of this history, but the stories I hear…shattering.
Now, on this Sunday afternoon nearly 50 years later, my Hmong husband was able to stand with this Vietnam veteran and thank him. My husband was born in the United States and has no personal memory of those mountains and rivers. But thanks to soldiers like this man, so many Hmong were able to find refuge here. As they conversed, I could see the emotions fighting for dominance in the soldier’s eyes. Every sentence pulled back layers. For those moments, we weren’t with a decades-long veteran, but a soldier fresh from the jungle frontlines.
“I’m so glad your family made it over,” he told us. “There are so many people who should’ve made it back and didn’t.”
Haunting grief filled every line of his face. He asked if we had been to Vietnam. He said he still looks it up on Google Maps and is in awe how much of it looks exactly as it did 50 years ago.
We blessed him and assured him that it was such an honor to meet him. I got in the car to leave feeling so shaken by the entire encounter. As we drove away, I happened to look back. I saw that soldier sitting alone in his truck and sobbing like a little boy while trying to wipe the tears from his face.
Most of us cannot comprehend all our men and women in uniform have endured – the scars they bear. We cannot grasp the sacrifice of military families. My father’s family lived near a base during much of the Vietnam war. He recalls so vividly seeing soldiers appear in the school lunchroom, call a child out into the hall, and tell them that their father was never coming home. My mother’s family is full of veterans who wrestled the rest of their lives against those sights and sounds of war.
It’s July. This month we celebrate freedom. We can say that word so absentmindedly, entirely oblivious to the cost. But our men and women who serve our nation deserve better. So here and now, I extend my deepest gratitude and honor to the military families across this incredible United States of America—the land of the free because of the brave.
We still see you. We thank you. We notice you.