Members of Winona's American Legion placed more than 1,000 American flags on the headstones of veterans in May. (Andrew Link/AP)

When he first returned home from Iraq, Phillip Carter said he found the random “Thanks!” from civilians to be off-putting. He was embarrassed by them and a bit annoyed — as in, “Is that all you can do?”

But after years of service and more time to absorb the nature of the message, he realized to accept and appreciate the sentiments. Carter concluded:

“Despite my initial misgivings, I’ve come to see “thank you for your service” as the right greeting to use for returning veterans. It is neither too intimate, nor too invasive, nor too distant, and it correctly captures the sentiment of a grateful nation for those who serve in harm’s way. Saying thank you avoids the much more pernicious questions that every combat veteran hates, questions such as “What was it like?” or “Did you kill anyone?” Simple statements of gratitude also avoid labeling veterans as heroes or victims, two moral judgments that can be made only on an individual basis, if at all.”

Veterans Day may not hold a candle to other candy- and gift-filled holidays for many children, especially to those without a family connection to the military. But Carter’s essay was, to me, a reminder that the day is an opportunity to explain notions of sacrifice and appreciation.

No piñatas or costumes or bite-sized Milky Ways. Tomorrow, maybe we’ll go online together and write a note of appreciation. The National WWII Museum in New Orleans is collecting thanks on their Web site and Facebook page. There’s also a new online resource for children whose parents are part of the military sponsored by Sesame Street Workshop: Military Families Near and Far.

Maybe we’ll take a walk to the National Archives or just down the street to look at the big American flag hoisted on the corner. We’ll call the girls’ grandfathers and aunt, who were in the service. We will also have a talk about what it means to be a veteran and what it means to thank a veteran.

How are you and your family planning to observe Veterans Day?