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Column: Honor veterans today and every day

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A service member puts an American flag in the ground of library lawn at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Tuesday, November 8 2016. There are 6,884 flags on the lawn that represent the soldiers killed since 9/11.

There are 6,955 American flags planted in the grass of Library Lawn. These flags represent more than a cool photo opportunity for your Snapchat story. These flags represent 6,955 heroes who sacrificed their lives fighting for this country since Sept. 11, 2001.

Each year, we are reminded of the sacrifices these brave men and women made. Veterans Day is a time to reflect and to give thanks. But honoring veterans should not be reserved solely for Veterans Day. We should strive to recognize the sacrifice of these individuals every day.

The planting of the flags on Library Lawn is a special moment every year. It was one of the first stories I wrote for the O’Colly, but it remains one of the most memorable.

It was Nov. 8, 2016, and volunteers were lining the grass with the flags. I remember feeling a wave of emotions when I first saw the display. I took a photo with my phone and sent it to my grandfather. My grandfather served in the United States Air Force from 1966 to 1972, and I knew the picture would make him smile.

In the text, I said, “Hey, Papa. People on campus were setting up flags in front of the library today for Veterans Day, and it made me think of u. Love u. See u soon.”

He responded a few minutes later, likely because he was at work, and his reply makes me smile to this day.

“Wow. Super cool. Love U2. Miss U.”

It was a simple text, but I knew it meant a lot to him, and it meant a lot to me. One of my favorite things growing up was listening to my grandfather tell stories. We would talk for hours about his time in the Air Force. He’s a great storyteller with more than enough stories to fill the pages of a book, but it's those little conversations I’ll cherish most.

Sometimes just being there to listen can mean a lot. If there are veterans in your family or community, I encourage you to reach out to them and just listen. Give them the opportunity to talk, to offer advice and to vent. We often get so caught up in our lives that we forget to take a step back and be the people who listen.

On that cold November day in 2016, I spoke to Rick Hansen, coordinator of Veteran Student Academic Services at OSU, about his involvement with the display. It was Hansen’s second year organizing the tribute to veterans. I remember watching Hansen shake the hands of several people who walked past Library Lawn. He answered their questions and happily gave them a few flags to place. Hansen is a veteran, and he said he knew when he was 12 that he wanted to be in the Marine Corps.

I asked Hansen what the flags display meant to him, and his answer has stuck with me since.

“Each flag means I’ve lost one of my brothers or sisters,” Hansen said.

The heroes who served our country are the reason I’m free to write this story. In such a divisive political climate, it’s important to honor those who fought for our right to have political discourse.

Every year on Nov. 11, the 19.6 million former and active service members are honored. Speeches, parades and ceremonies offer a nation’s appreciation, but there are so many more ways to honor these individuals than simply saying “thank you for your service.”

Let them know they matter. Listen to their stories. Share their stories. Volunteer at your local VA office. Offer support to veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The National Center for PTSD provides a Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-8255 and through text at 838255. Do whatever you can to help those who served or are currently serving.

The next time you walk past Edmon Low Library, I encourage you to take a moment and reflect. Talk to people there. Spark conversations, and keep those conversations going. Our support of service members shouldn’t be reserved to a few days out of the year; it should be a constant, year-long effort.