Lest We Forget. Thank a Veteran. Take time to listen.
I served 10 years as a Commissioned Officer in the British Royal Air Force. I joined at age 18 and did my Officer Training straight after school. I’ve had a number of friends killed during their service, in training and in action.
As a teenager, I served in the Air Cadets in the UK from age 13 and was lucky enough to get my pilot wings and Private Pilot’s licence just after my 17th birthday – I could fly solo before I could even drive! It still staggers me that as a 17-years old I could rock up at my local flying club and rent a plane for a couple of hours and fly it wherever I wanted 😲
Hardly a surprise that just after my 18th birthday I got banned for a month by Exeter Flying Club for low flying (a farmer reported I was so low I made his windows rattle – quite a feat in a single engine Cessna 150 aerobat!)! Anyway, I digress – happy to share some of those stories over a beer or coffee if anyone’s interested, DM me 😂
Every year on Remembrance Day^ (11th November) I and 3 other cadets would honour the fallen and the living, and we guarded the Cenotaph in our local town (Tavistock, Devon), sometimes standing for 2 hours in the rain, and once or twice in the snow (November in the UK, remember!) – that’s me in the photo!
After the Last Post was played and the Remembrance Day ceremony concluded, we were always invited back to the local Royal British Legion club – they are now the UK’s largest Armed Forces charity, with 180,000 members, 110,000 volunteers, but back then it was more of an elderly veterans meeting place/ club.
They used to buy us a beer (yes, more relaxed rules in those days!) and we used to sit and listen to the elderly vets and hear their war stories – mostly from WW2, some from WW1, but also later wars. I remember looking deeply into their eyes and their faces, their experiences etched into their wrinkled and wizened features.
Every year, they had tears in their eyes. Tears remembering their friends and family who had fallen; tears at the horrors they had experienced; tears for lost lives, military and civilian; tears for lost loved ones, military and civilian; tears for missed opportunities…*
Interestingly, many also had soft smiles on their faces in addition to the tears. On the first or second time I was part of the Remembrance Day guard, I remember one elderly veteran smiling at me as I sat there captivated by his tales, tears in my eyes as heard his stories.
What’s stuck with me most about that moment wasn’t just that, though. It was what he said to me as he softly smiled and cried.
He looked at me, tears rolling down his cheeks, held my hand, and said: “You youngsters are amazing. Amazing not just because you show us respect guarding the cenotaph, which we deeply appreciate, but especially amazing because you come here with us and sit and actually deeply listen to our stories and what we have to say. We feel heard. We feel seen. We feel important. That means so much. Thank you.” (I actually have a tear in my eyes as I write this and remember 🥲).
That stuck with me and was the reason I extremely happily went back to the Royal British Legion and sat listening to those elderly Vets every year after that (and a cheeky beer, or course 😉).
I’m hoping you’ll take away a few of nuggets of wisdom from my story:
- Please take time to remember the sacrifice veterans have made. Lest we forget.
- Say thank you if you know someone who is a vet. Walk up to them and say it. Text or WhatsApp them. Put something on their socials if they have them. It will mean a lot, I promise you.
- Also say thank you to serving personnel you know, as they may be called upon at any time to put their lives on the line
- Also remember the innocent civilians on all sides also caught up in the horrors of war. Particularly pertinent at the moment.
- Extend your remembrance to people who served on all sides – my partner is Austrian, which brings a thought-provoking different perspective for me on Remembrance Day.
- Take time to listen to people. Truly listen.
Listening is one of the most underrated leadership skills. In nearly every annual staff PMES survey, and surveys of people in companies everywhere, one of the lowest rated questions is “I feel that senior executives/management truly listen”.
4 of the Gallup Q12 people engagement survey questions ask:
“In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.”
“My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.”
“There is someone at work who encourages my development.”
“At work, my opinions seem to count.”
In several of our leadership development programs, particularly in our T.O.A.D. Coaching Leadership program, we talk about building a “Catch People Doing Something Right” culture. That includes giving praise where praise is due, even for seemingly small things. And it includes taking the time to truly listen to people and hear their opinions, ideas and simply experiences.
You can see from my story above how important that is, and the difference it can make to a human being. Sometimes that’s the difference between engagement and disengagement. From my experience as a Lifeline Counsellor, sometimes it’s the difference between life and death.
^ Remembrance Day, November 11th, is the big event to remember the fallen in the UK, and we remember the fallen from all nations as well as those that directly served the UK.
*Many employers have no idea of the strengths a veteran can bring to the workplace, so we often get left behind…