Thursday, November 5, 2015

Trista Matascastillo - Finding the True Meaning of Veterans Day

Trista Matascastillo served 16 years in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Army National Guard. She currently serves as the Veterans’ Voices Program Officer with the Minnesota Humanities Center and as Chair of the Women Veterans Initiative, a non-profit advocating for equality and develops programming specific to the needs of women Veterans. Trista is a contributing author of “The Attorneys Guide to defending Veterans in Criminal Court” and has become a frequent blogger and public speaker. Trista was honored as the 2011 Woman Veteran of the Year. She and her husband Hector live in St. Paul with their five sons.

On the cusp of Veterans Day I am finding myself in deep contemplation about how and why we need to radically change the notion of that day in America. I’ve already seen the list of restaurants serving Veterans a “free meal” on my Facebook feed. I used to go to one of them for lunch on Veterans Day with a group of my colleagues. I stopped going because repeatedly I would be charged for my meal or denied the Veterans’ menu because it was “just for Veterans;” apparently my own documentation and identification card didn’t override the gender stereotypes or the general assumptions about who a Veteran is or isn’t.

My personal motivation, coupled with a larger need arising from the community, is the energy behind the Minnesota Humanities Center Veterans’ Voices Program. In 2014, we worked to pass legislation to declare October as Veterans’ Voices Month in hopes of encouraging educators to engage students in taking a deeper look at what it really means to be a Veteran during the month of October, prior to Veterans Day.

This year in early October, we gathered educators and Veterans together at the Humanities Center for an intensive weekend focused on curriculum to offer a teaching resource using literature that features Veterans’ stories and voices. But it was so much more than just a weekend around literature. What actually emerged was a true sense of community coming together; teachers from across the state, sitting next to Veterans, reading, talking, and learning from and with each other. It was truly amazing as Veterans and educators formed bonds and made connections with each other. There was a spirit of healing that wasn’t the intent but certainly was the result.

What we discovered more than anything is that we (me included) need to be and feel part of the community. We need to have our community not disengage from us as military members or Veterans, but instead we need to be welcomed back into the circle for the sake of us all.

If you are not already aware of the number, more than 23 Veteran suicides are reported every day. We have lost more Veterans to suicide than in combat. The mission of defending the country is so important that those who join resign themselves to the idea that they may die in the process. Military service is a deeply emotional commitment that is hard to understand if you haven’t made it.  The one thing that never crosses the minds of Veterans like me in making such a commitment is that once we leave our community we are practically forgotten. Returning to our “home” does not mean we are accepted back into the community.

There lies the problem. We leave the circle of community and are never really welcomed back into the circle. It is so isolating, so alienating, that it is literally killing us.

There are some who are doing very well in bringing us back into the fold, and Veterans are helping each other as best we can by building new communities and new groups. But, too often, America is just selling mattresses on Veterans Day.

I ask that this year on Veterans Day you make a commitment to not just say “Thank you for your service,” but to really welcome a Veteran back into your community. Get to know who the Veterans around you are and welcome them into the fold. It might be awkward at first, and that’s ok. We might not trust your intentions immediately, but keep trying. There are Veterans from every era and generation who are still standing outside the circle and dying at a rate of 23+ each day. And trust me…you’re going to like us!


  1. You say that "there was a spirit of healing that wasn’t the intent but certainly was the result." The Minnesota Humanities Center's programs--what the humanities do more than what they are--accomplish this. And you, Trista, through your extraordinary leadership of the Veterans' Voices Program, are a prime exemplar of "what unites us rather than what divides us." May this Veterans Day be a time of "forming bonds and making connections."

  2. Proud to be your friend Trista! You and Hector are amazing!!!!!