[Editor’s Note: The following is a message about Veterans Day given by veteran Ryan Cotter of Washington at The Gunnery in Washington.]

I would like to start by thanking everyone here today not just for letting me speak to you about Veterans Day, but also for welcoming me wholeheartedly into the Gunnery community.

Among you students are faculty and administrators who have honorably served in the armed forces while quietly never mentioning it nor expecting any praise; they are quiet professionals who today we recognize for their humble service to our country.

Joining the military is not always about idealism.

Life circumstances happen and the military can provide opportunities for economic mobility, a pathway to citizenship, educational benefits and technical skills that are highly sought after in the civilian sector.

The cost of these benefits, however, are rarely humanized and can be talked about as sterilized facts.

In my case, I wasn’t ready for college, but knew an education was something I desperately wanted, so I enlisted in the Navy and then volunteered again to enter the submarine program.

In my process for reflecting on what it means to be a veteran, I often find that when I try to contextualize my time spent in the military I often stumble; trying to make sure I try in some way to combat the negative stereotypes of veterans, and humanize (not glorify) the experiences I and other veterans shared.

I spent five years of my life serving on board a fast-attack nuclear submarine.

In order to make the selection process you need to demonstrate your resolve to learn and work in some of the harshest conditions.

There is no fresh air, no sunlight, no privacy, you work 18-hour days doing math and physics, and worst of all there is no Internet.

When President Obama was elected I had no idea until months after the fact.

I equate the experience to inviting 90 of your closest friends over to your house and living and working together without stepping foot outside for three or four months at a time.

This experience and many others in the military take a tremendous toll both mentally and physically on service members and yet we ask that they endure.

It is an incredible thing to know that the reason I can be here today is because of the veterans who endured these hardships to protect our way of life.

At this point I would like to give a special thanks to Mr. Bailey as he actually helped design and commission the very submarine I served on.

Thank you for getting me home safely, Mr. Bailey.

Today is not about paying lip service to those who volunteered years of their lives in service to this nation with a simple “Thank you for your service.”

While this is a polite custom I honestly feel embarrassed and confused by the statement.

I served not for praise or accolades but for my education, my brother’s education and to gain an appreciation for the everyday mundane blessings and freedoms that I took for granted in my youth.

An often overlooked fact is that the men and women who bravely put on the uniform and defend this nation are not the only ones making sacrifices.

Veterans Day is also about recognizing the parents, spouses, siblings and friends who have also had to shoulder a burden and heartache in giving up those whom they love for years at a time.

And ultimately when they do come back they are often forever changed.

As many of you know I am married to Dr. Matthews, but what you may not know is that she is an incredible supporter of veterans.

She wrote the white paper to fund Stanford University’s 2 to 4 Program that revolutionized the way veterans prepare for and apply to elite universities and colleges around the country.

To the family and friends of veterans everywhere we recognize you, Dr. Matthews, for your service as well.

So if it’s not about lip service and a simple thank you, then how can you demonstrate your appreciation for what veterans have done?

I would say the real thanks for veterans is seeing people take an active role participating in government.

Actions like voting are an appreciable thanks to us, engaging in our democratic process, participating in community service.

Be a part of what we stood to defend; this is how you can thank a veteran.

Take action in combating indifference, have the courage to help someone, take ownership for each other and the community around you and I promise you that is the biggest thank you we could ever hope to receive.

Thank you all for allowing me to speak here today.

Ryan Cotter

Washington