(Note: This is a repost of an essay I wrote in 2017, updating it for 2018.)
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, as armies that have passed through - foraging as they went - left them with scant resources. At the sight of the soldiers, the fearful villagers lock 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 cauldron from his wagon, while his companion 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?”
“Stone Soup is 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 hot 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 hording. “Thank you so very much,” said the first soldier, adding the cabbage to the pot.
As it continues to simmer, 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 villager's 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.
There are different versions of this story, the most common about the soldiers playing the village for fools, and selling the "magic stone" to them at the end.
I prefer to see this story in another light – as a simple tale with about a soldiers and a community coming together to share what little they have for the greater benefit of all.
There are many parallels to the US today. Each year, thousands of Veterans return to communities across the United States – many feel lost in a community that does not understand them. They are no longer part of a small tribe that had their back, no matter what. The community might be wary of the false narrative that all Veterans have PTSD and are a ticking time bomb. Employers remain ignorant to their experiences, talents or needs. Our increasing isolation caused by our social media tribalism carves us into little pockets of "us" - offering little incentives to join others with different backgrounds.
If the story were told today, the soldiers would camp ignored 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 is 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 trained to "figure it out" and not asking for much help. Likewise, for many in the community, military experience is foreign to them. Their view of the military is shaped by Hollywood or the media. The only help offered is a “Thanks for your service” and a discount on pancakes or a new car.
How can we change the narrative to have an outcome more like the story? If you are not a Veteran, you might feel that on an individual basis you have nothing to offer, but every little bit helps. 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? Knowing where the good restaurants are, or good churches, parks or doctors goes a long way to becoming part of the community. Maybe you can invite the new guy at the office to lunch and simply ask about his experiences. Ask them about their jobs, their units, what was the most fun stuff. Get to know them as a person.
If you are a Veteran, do not be afraid to ask for help - at work, at home, of friends or family. Work to find your new tribe & get integrated back into the community. Get to know your neighbors, learn about them and their story. Help where you are able, whether it's reading to school kids, or volunteering at church, a soup kitchen, or swinging a hammer for Habitat. Be proud of your service but continue to add to your story.
Veterans have a lot to offer. They are highly skilled and competent employees. They are dedicated students. Veterans have a much higher rate of voluntarism that the general public and are great for pitching in.
For that potential to come through, we 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.