What is a Veteran?

By Father Dennis Edward O'Brien, USMC

Some veterans bear visible signs of their service: a missing limb, a jagged scar, a certain look in the eye. Others may carry the evidence inside them: a pin holding a bone together, a piece of shrapnel in the leg or perhaps another sort of inner steel: the soul's ally forged in the refinery of adversity.

Except in parades, however, the men and women who have kept America safe wear no badge or emblem. You can't tell a vet just by looking.

What is a vet?

He is the cop on the beat who spent six months in Saudi Arabia sweating two gallons a day making sure the armored personnel carriers didn't run out of fuel.

He is the barroom loudmouth, dumber than five wooden planks, whose overgrown frat-boy behavior is outweighed a hundred times in the cosmic scales by four hours of exquisite bravery near the 38th parallel.

She or he is the nurse who fought against futility and went to sleep sobbing every night for two solid years in Da Nang.

He is the POW who went away one person and came back another, or didn't come back AT ALL.

He is the Quantico drill instructor who has never seen combat, but has saved countless lives by turning slouchy, no-account rednecks and gang members into Marines, and teaching them to watch each other's backs.

He is the parade-riding Legionnaire who pins on his ribbons and medals with a prosthetic hand.

He is the career quartermaster who watches the ribbons and medals pass him by.

He is the three anonymous heroes in The Tomb of the Unknowns, whose presence at Arlington National Cemetery must forever preserve the memory of all the anonymous heroes whose valor dies unrecognized with them on the battlefield or in the ocean's sunless deep.

He is the old guy bagging groceries at the supermarket - palsied now and aggravatingly slow - who helped liberate a Nazi death camp and who wishes all day long that his wife were still alive to hold him when the nightmares come.

He is an ordinary and yet an extraordinary human being, a person who offered some of his life's most vital years in the service of his country, and who sacrificed his ambitions so others would not have to sacrifice theirs.

He is a soldier and a savior and a sword against the darkness, and he is nothing more than the finest, greatest testimony on behalf of the finest, greatest nation ever known.

So remember, each time you see someone who has served our country, just lean over and say "THANK YOU." That's all most people need, and in most cases it will mean more than any medals they could have been awarded or were awarded.

Those two little words mean a lot, "THANK YOU."

Sergeant Denis Edward O'Brien enlisted in the United States Marine Corps after the attack on Pearl Harbor that drew the U.S. into World War II. He saw action in Okinawa and Pelelieu, where he was greatly inspired by seeing the results of missionary work in the Pacific Islands.

After being honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in 1945, Sergeant O'Brien was accepted to the Maryknoll Mission Society. He was ordained in 1953, and served in Tanganyika from 1954 to 1957.

Father O'Brien served in Mexico from 1957 until 1988, when a diagnosis of prostate cancer forced his returned to Texas. In Mexico, he was instrumental in the fight against abortion, and in the establishment of a program for mentally challenged children, to help them learn and understand enough to participate in their first Holy Communion. With support from the local community, the program grew to include a day care program for severely affected children, and a hospice, which provides a home for incurable and abandoned children.

In 2002, Father O'Brien succumbed to cancer, surrounded and supported to the end by fellow Marines, priests and parishioners. Among his many accomplishments, Father O'Brien:

  • Served the Parish of San Camilo de Lelis in Mexico City, with 110,000 parishioners, at times without an assistant;
  • Served as archdiocesan director of Pro-Life Action;
  • Served as chaplain for the Pan American games;
  • Served as a translator for Mother Theresa one night during 1975's Year of the Woman;
  • Served as National Chaplain of the First Marine Division Association, Spiritual Director of the American Life League and Chaplain for the K.C. Council 799.

Father O'Brien is often erroneously credited as the author of the inspiring poem It Is the Soldier, which he enjoyed sharing with others. His parish points out the he was always quick to disclaim authorship, although he greatly admired the sentiment of the poem, which was written by Army veteran Charles M. Province.

Please, use the buttons across the bottom of the page to share this article, and/or 

Would you like to receive our blog updates by e-mail, so you'll be notified when something new has been added to the site?


New! Comments

Join our conversation! Leave me a comment about this page in the box below. If your comment is about another page on this site, please leave your comment on that page, because I have no ability to move it to the correct page. Thanks!

Connect With Us

Like us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter Subscribe to our e-mail updates Subscribe to our RSS feed

Live Well

Connect With Us

Like us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter Subscribe to our e-mail updates Subscribe to our RSS feed

This site best viewed with the Firefox browser.Site best viewed with Firefox