Thoughts on veterans on Veterans Day

My life is a current event.  No, that’s a bit presumptuous, let’s say that my life is a continuing event.  As I get older, things that I’ve seen and experienced as part of my continuing event become categorized by those younger than me as “history” and lumped together with such notable events as World War II, the fall of Rome, and the birth of Christ.  One of the many purposes of this blog is to help educate the younger generation (assuming they’re even reading this) about the way things were in those long, long ago days when the year on the calendar didn’t start with a 2.  Which brings me in a round about way to veterans.

I vividly remember a time in the late 1970’s when the word veteran got a completely different reaction that it does today.  The US had just pulled out of a war (the technical word for this is “lost”) in Vietnam that had divided the country almost as sharply as it is divided today.  The war was unlike anything that US forces had fought before and they were not prepared for an enemy that was willing to use their own citizens as human shields.  Combine that with a large part of the US population who didn’t think the troops should be there in the first place and the recipe for disaster is pretty obvious in hindsight, but there were additional factors at work.  Nixon had just resigned the White House and been pardoned by his successor so that America could avoid the trauma of a sitting president being charged with criminal obstruction of justice and faith in the government as a whole was very low.

What does this have to do with veterans?  Soldiers bore the brunt of all of this.  All the rage at the war, the embarrassment of the withdrawal, and the mistrust of the government got unfairly taken out on the veterans. It may be hard for folks to believe in today’s world but soldiers returning from that war were cursed, spit on, and called “baby killers” by complete strangers. There were stories of soldiers going into bars in uniform, alone, and getting beaten by the patrons and thrown out by the bartender.  The soldiers took the heat for the decisions made in Washington.

For years after that military recruiters faced an uphill battle because everyone knew that only losers and criminals with no other option joined the military.  This wasn’t entirely true, and there were plenty of exceptions, but that was the public perception for a very long time.  Veterans of WWII and Korea were still honored but in a quiet, careful way so that the veterans of Vietnam knew they weren’t included.   The reaction was unjust, unfair, and based on unrealistic expectations but hey, large populations of people tend to do things like that.

Fast forward 40 years and the pendulum has swung all the way to the opposite side of the spectrum.  It didn’t happen all at once.  Memories of Vietnam faded and a new generation came along before the events made it to history books so they barely even heard of them, certainly not from parents who were reluctant to relive them.  Popular opinion of soldiers had become much more neutral by 2001 than it was in 1976, and that opinion was dramatically altered on Sept 11 like so many other things in the US.  With the US clearly having been attacked it became obvious to many that the military were once again the defenders of freedom.  Today, of course, a uniformed soldier probably hasn’t had to pay for her or his own drinks for the past 5 years.

I have some definite opinions about US foreign policy in the post-9/11 years and in particular how soldiers have been used, but this isn’t the time or the place for them, and besides, as I pointed out above, those policies aren’t made by the soldiers.  This is a time to be thankful for the fact that men and women believe strongly enough in their country that they’re willing to take a job where their boss can tell them to put their lives on the line to defend it.  The farthest I’ll go toward making a political statement on Veteran’s Day is to offer my sincere and heartfelt hope that the leaders of the country do their part by respecting those soldiers and sending them where they can do the most good and not wasting their offer of the ultimate sacrifice.

It’s Veteran’s Day.  No matter what your political leanings, buy one a beer.  Politics isn’t their fault.

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on veterans on Veterans Day

  1. t

    Very nice post, Mark. Veterans Day is indeed the time to say “Thank you” to our veterans – or, to buy a veteran a beer, or to shake his or her hand with conviction – and I do believe that most civilians today leave their politics at the door, or just keep their traps shut. There is heartfelt respect for these men and women who serve in our place, and who return home with wounds both seen and unseen.

    But, sadly, the divisiveness and outright rage of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, of which the veterans of that war bore the brunt, has not been universally healed in interactions with today’s returning OIF/OEF veterans. There remains an air of elitism among some of those who did not, for various reasons of their own, serve during that era (and I have no wish to question nor denigrate them; it’s no one else’s business what those reasons were). I see it less now, but I have unfortunately witnessed exchanges between a few university professors in particular, and veterans – students attending their own college, possibly sitting in their own classrooms – which reveal a complete lack of understanding of, and even callous disregard for, the myriad reasons men and women choose to serve in the military.

    I was taken aback during one of these exchanges, believing that we as a society had perhaps moved beyond the finger-pointing and blaming/shaming of past era veterans. These were people whom I thought, and still think, should have known better. One instructor asked a veteran point-blank [*profanity alert*], “Why in the FUCK were you so stupid as to join the military after nine-eleven?! How could you allow yourself to be used in such a way? I just don’t get it.” The room fell silent, and I don’t think I was alone in wishing this person, er… not well. But what it illustrated most importantly for me – other than the fact that there will always be people, no matter how “educated,” who insist on being douchebags – was that there is an *enormous* gulf between active military / veterans, and civilians. The U.S. All-Volunteer Force instituted as a reaction to Vietnam has created an incredibly professional fighting force, one of the finest (and now, one of the most exhausted) in the world. But there is also a profound disconnect between the military world and the civilian one that still feeds into an “us” versus “them” mentality, where vets feel defensive about their service, believing no one outside of that world could possibly understand them. Veterans deserve better than that.

    The best advice I was ever given by one of the finest men I’ve ever known (someone I’d become acquainted with through my desire to work with veterans), a catastrophically wounded Vietnam vet who went on to become a counselor for countless veterans at the VA, was simply this: “Shut up, and LISTEN.” Instead of harassing veterans with questions, we need to simply be available to them as individuals, neighbors and friends, in the hope that we will remind them that *most* of us wish to create the kind of communities worthy of theirs and their families’ many sacrifices.

    Thanks for providing a forum for me to discuss this, Mark (you invited discussion, right? ;-)) Props to you.

    Reply
    1. feingarden Post author

      I would be very interested in knowing more about the conversation leading up to the professor’s tactless question. I can think of contexts in which the question itself could have been valid even if the tactlessness was inexcusable.

      Reply

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