America’s Largest Mobile Library
Dan Yates

One of the largest “libraries” in the United States has more than 1,300 branch offices in all 50 states. What is it, you ask?The Veterans Affairs Medical System, better known as the VA. With nearly 200 medical centers and more than 1,000 clinics, the VA system treated more than nine million veterans in 2017, the last year statistics are available. Considering that there were more than 20 million veterans alive in 2017, how many stories or just experiences are unaccounted for, or MIA?

Each time a veteran enters a VA facility for the first time, the number of stories in the “library” increases. Every veteran has a story and for most, many stories. Also, every veteran is a story. Conservatively speaking, if each veteran has three stories, the total number of stories would be 27 million. For those veterans who have retired after more than 20 years of service, the number of stories within each of them is increased exponentially.

Another fact is that every story falls into the same genre, nonfiction. I can’t think of any other library, outside of the Library of Congress, that might offer a larger nonfiction selection than the VA. Not every story is one of pain, though many are. Since mankind apparently cannot live in peace, war and conflict are inevitable. The result: painful stories. However, there are countless stories of compassion and humor that we have starred in, or perhaps witnessed. Some stories bring attention to social injustice and disregard for the health and well-being of humanity and thus can bring about change.

Some may say that we have already heard their stories from someone else, but that’s wrong. Each of us is unique, and though we may be side by side in a firefight or in a foxhole, or marching in formation at basic training, each experienced something different from the same exposure. No two stories are identical.

How will others benefit from these millions of stories unless we tell them? Too often we say that we don’t have any stories, but if prompted by the right questions, we will discover not one but several stories worthy of sharing that are archived within us.

My favorite example of that is taking part in the free breakfasts that businesses now offer across the country on Veterans Day. Vets of all branches and generations attend, and an immediate bond is formed. After just a couple of bites, stories are flying off the table, laughter is heard, smiles light up faces and playful banter takes place among service branches. Sharing experiences in the service is infectious. Each veteran is a “mobile library,” and stories are freely told with pride and often with animation. You can “check out” some very interesting stories and ask all the follow-up questions you’d like. Last November I finished my meal and stayed for another hour, just to listen to stories. If you have never been to one, I highly recommend it. Many establishments offer free breakfasts to spouses, and on the drive home you may hear something like “I don’t remember you ever talking about ….”

Let me encourage you to share your stories with family, friends and other veterans. Help build and be part of one of the largest libraries in the country. Sit down in front of a keyboard or pick up a pen and write your story, then send it to Veterans’ Voices. There is no ‘wrong’ story, and by not sharing yours, you may be robbing someone else of a laugh or a healing.