The idea behind a Veterans Town Hall is to give vets of all wars a chance to address their community directly and without intermediaries. As a veteran speaking at a town hall event, you will be addressing a crowd that includes everything from close friends and family to complete strangers. But these are the people you risked your life for; these are the people you went to war for. No one goes to war and returns home unaffected. It’s not fair - or healthy – for veterans to be left alone with these burdens. They belong to all of us.
The event should be solemn and non-political. There will be no question-and-answer period afterward. There will be no debate on the merits or justifications of war. There will be no recriminations or accusations. This is simply a chance for veterans to tell the community what it felt like to go to war. Many vets will be incredibly proud. Others will be angry. Some might be crying too hard to speak. A community ceremony like this will return the experience of war to our entire nation rather than just leaving it to the people who fought. The bland phrase, I support the troops, will now mean showing up at town hall once a year to hear these people out.
Veteran Town Hall events are simple to set up and cost almost nothing. Non-veterans are just as capable of setting them up as veterans are, but vets may have more success getting past reluctant officials and red tape. Here are five simple steps to setting up such an event:
1) Tell town hall administrators that you want access to the building on Veterans Day. Since it is a national holiday, it shouldn’t conflict with town business. Make sure you have a point-of-contact and cell phone number that will work on a holiday.
2) Arrange for a qualified sound engineer to set up and adjust the microphone and PA system in the main hall.
3) Plan on a four-hour event. Have plenty of seating. It’s fine if people wander in and out - this isn’t a performance, it’s a public gathering. It should be respectful but relaxed.
4) Once the venue has been established, announce the event to both the general public and to veterans. Make sure that at least half a dozen vets plan to show up to speak, and that the room has plenty of people in it. Ideally, veterans from all wars and branches of service should be involved. Social media, verbal announcements at town meetings and press releases to local radio and television stations are effective ways of getting the word out. Flyers and posters at supermarkets also work well. Make sure to network through the local VA and VFW.
5) One person should introduce the event and then act as a master of ceremony. The MC’s job is simply to make sure that people understand and abide by the rules. And the rules are simple:
- Each vet has ten minutes to speak
- They can say anything they want within the boundaries of good taste in a community forum
- The focus should be the emotional experience of the war, whatever that may mean for each particular person.
- All perspectives are valued and important. This event is not about “patriotism” or “activism,” it is about sharing powerful and important experiences within the community.
- When a veteran is done, he or she steps down and the next veteran steps up. Some veterans may wander in who were not on the original list of speakers. They are welcome to speak but should not feel pressured to.
- NO ONE who did not serve in the armed forces may speak at this event.
- After all veterans who want to speak have done so, the event is over.
It may be helpful to have a sign-up sheet – both for speakers and listeners – so that the event is easier to organize the following year. Press attendance should be encouraged, though TV cameras may be intimidating to some speakers. Any videotaping should be done as unobtrusively as possible, and the MC should make it clear at the beginning – and from time to time thereafter – that cameras will be turned off for anyone who does not wish to be recorded.
It is my sincere wish that every town hall in the country have such an event on Veterans Day. Not only will it be tremendously beneficial to veterans, but it may help bring communities and even the entire country together as well. These events are also an opportunity to record oral histories of our nation’s wars, and it is a simple matter to put a tape recorder on the podium where people speak. One day there may be a national archive that gathers and stores all of the incredible testimony of our nation’s veterans.
Finally, I would very much like to hear from you. If you are having difficulty setting up an event, please contact me through the form below. Alternatively, you could contact the office of Representative Seth Moulton (D-Massachusetts) who served courageously as a Marine lieutenant in Iraq and has gone on to espouse the Veteran Town Hall idea in Congress. (The best contact for Representative Moulton is: Dennis.firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone: 1-978-531-1669). After Veterans Day, please post an account of your event to tell the country how it went. If you do that, more people may be inspired to organize their own event next year. That is how movements spread…–Sebastian Junger