As Veterans Day nears, I have been reflecting on the story of Stone Soup. If you are not familiar, Stone Soup is an old folktale about two soldiers returning from war that stop for the night in a small village. The village has fallen on hard times, ostensibly by the armies that have passed through, “foraging” as they went. At the sight of the soldiers, the villagers hide behind their doors and shutter their windows. As the weary soldiers begin setting up their camp for the night, the Mayor of the village warily approaches them and tells them there is no food to spare in the village.
“That’s alright,” says one of the soldiers, “We’ll be dining tonight on stone soup. We only ask to fill our pot with water from the well.” He proceeds to pull a large caldron from his wagon, while his fellow soldier begins to build a fire.
Taken aback, the Mayor consents, “Well, just the water then, we have nothing else to offer.” Then, his curiosity piqued, he asks, “What is stone soup? I’ve never heard of it?”
“It’s something we learned to make in the war” the first soldier said. At this, he pulled a large, smooth stone from a bag and placed it in the pot of water. “It’s the most delicious soup you’ve ever tasted.”
At this point, the Mayor’s curiosity has surpassed any fear of the soldiers he might have had. “That’s it, just a stone in a pot of water?”
“This is not just any stone - it’s a magic stone.” says the first soldier. “And when the soup is done, we will offer some to the village.”
“Magic stone!” cries the Mayor. “This I have to see for myself.”
At this point, the villagers begin to come out and get a closer look at what is going on. The Mayor explains to them about the “magic stone” and the stone soup the soldiers are making. They all exchange looks of incredulity. Some of them lick their lips in anticipation of a meal.
As the pot begins to simmer, the first soldier tastes the “soup” and declares it, “Delicious! But you know, nothing makes stone soup better except maybe for some cabbage.” One of the villagers disappears and returns with a cabbage he had been hiding. “Thank you so very much,” said the first soldier, adding the cabbage to the pot.
As continues to cook, the soldiers think of other things that will make the stone soup taste even better: salt pork, onions, pepper, and so on. Each time, the next ingredient magically appears from some hiding spot and is added to the soup. Eventually, the wonderful aroma of the stone soup fills the air. Soon the soldiers and the villagers enjoy a delicious and nourishing soup together.
I love this story – on the surface a simple tale with a moral about a community coming together to share what little they have for the greater benefit of all.
To me, there are many parallels to today. As Veterans return to communities across the United States – those communities might feel they have nothing to offer them, and the Veterans often do not know how to ask for what they need. If today were the story, the soldiers would camp at the edge of the village, settle for eating a bowl of hot water, and the villagers would stay isolated behind closed doors. Not a very compelling story.
The better story is when the soldiers and villagers come together, not just for a meal, but as a community. As Veterans return home, the opportunity exists to weave them back into the fabric of society. It is not always easy. Military members of all ranks and branches of service are taught how to be a team and be part of something that is bigger than themselves. They are not always great at asking for help. Likewise, for so many in the community, military experience is foreign to them, and the only help offered is a “Thanks for your service” and a discount on pancakes.
So how can we change the narrative to be more like the story? We might feel on an individual basis we have nothing to offer, but even the littlest of things can help. Does your company hire newly separated Veterans? Could you offer to mentor one and show them the ropes? Are you available to volunteer some time or expertise to a local Veteran Service Organization? Maybe you have new neighbors that just left the military – could you spend an hour driving them around to show them all the good places?
Veterans have a lot to offer. For that potential to come through, we just might need help making our community our home. If we as Americans, like the villagers in the story all do our part, our communities will be all the better for it.