As a veteran, the day that our country celebrates and honors the sacrifices of the men and women who have served in the military is significant and extra special to me.
I remember every milestone moment of my time in the service: my initial meeting with a recruiter in Portland; being sworn in and taking the oath to defend our country against all enemies, foreign and domestic; arriving at boot camp and feeling my heart beat faster and louder than it ever had before due to the apprehension of what I knew (and didn’t know) was soon to come; the humble pride I felt as I stood among my fellow recruits on graduation day; arriving at my first duty station — a 225-foot buoy tender called the Coast Guard Cutter Willow (WLB-202), based in Newport, Rhode Island; the first search and rescue mission we conducted where we saved the life of a fisherman from Maine (I still have the thank you letter he sent to our crew after he recovered); the life-changing and harrowing experience of conducting Cuban and Haitian migrant interdictions off the coast of Florida; responding to the deep-water horizon oil spill off the coast of Louisiana; and the many, many hours of standing watch, ensuring that we were “Semper Paratus” (Always Ready).
These memories are more than thoughts that are stored in my brain that are recalled every now and then — they are a part of who I am. For that reason, Veterans Day is very special to me.
As part of the day’s celebration, I took my two children to one of the restaurants graciously offering a free meal to veterans. The ambience of the restaurant was remarkable — decorated in red, white and blue and an awe-inspiring feeling of connection being in a place with so many other veterans. However, two things occurred during my time at that restaurant to which a response is justifiably warranted in attempt to mitigate future recurrences.
The first “incident” took place while I was waiting to be seated. I noticed that the host asked any party that had a man in it if there were a veteran in their party. Because he had not asked me the same, I went back up to the podium and asked if I was supposed to let them know ahead of time that I was a veteran, to which he replied “yes.” Nobody else had to bring it to his attention so it was somewhat awkward for me to have to do so.
Then, as we were getting ready to leave, I noticed that the manager of the restaurant was walking up to the tables where veterans were seated. He shook their hands and offered them a gift card as another kind gesture of appreciation. He stopped at every table. He stopped at the one next to mine. He stopped at the one after mine. But, he did not stop at mine. I reflected on this for a moment, looked around to see what was so different about my table compared to the others. All the tables that had veterans seated at them had American flag napkins and patriotic hats on them, including mine. The only thing that was different was that I was a woman. All the tables where the manager had stopped had at least one man sitting at them.
That was truly and honestly the only observable difference.
I write this not to complain that I didn’t get a handshake, a thank you, or a gift card, for that part isn’t significant to me and is certainly not why I took an oath and served my country. I write this because of what is significant — I was treated differently on this very special day, simply because I am a woman.
I understand that neither the host nor the manager intended to treat me differently, assuming I was not a veteran. I am sure they had no idea about the impact that their actions (or inactions) had on me.
But, I also understand that this type of occurrence is more than a simple perception perceived only by me. It is a societal reality, which is why I feel compelled to share this story. It is my hope that next Veterans Day, and all the ones that follow, women who have served in the military get the same treatment and respect as the men who have served do. We are worthy of that.
Coleen Elias is a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard. She lives in Buckfield.