Thursday, April 13, 2017

What you don't know about military veterans (part 2 of 2)

In part one, I raised the issue that the military and our veterans are equally misunderstood by conservatives and liberals alike (and maybe we could even be considered a marginalized group).  Here, I'd like to share some insights common to most veterans I know.

We don't know what to say when you thank us.
My fellow veterans and I talk about this a lot.  We are all thrilled that we have learned as a nation from the mistakes following the Vietnam era, but we're at a bit of a loss when a random stranger decides to thank one of us individually.

Our thought process goes a little like this:  Why are they thanking me?  They don't know what I did or didn't do.  They don't appear to have any way to relate what it meant to them or to me.  I know people who did so much more and sacrificed greater than I did.  There are people downrange right now that need your support; not me.  Your appreciation is misplaced.

After all that, we shrug and try to figure out whether re-thanking them or "you're welcome" is the more appropriate response.  We just don't know what you're looking for.

If I may make a suggestion: if you want to show your appreciation to a veteran, ask a few questions instead of poking us with an arbitrary "thank you."  Where did you serve?  Do you have friends still in the military?  What was it like for you?  What could we do around here?

We keep our politics somewhere south of our dog tags.
I sort of think the "veterans are all conservative hawks" narrative comes from the squad of retired officers who have sold out to a career of punditry on television.  These folks, by and large, come off as quacks to me.  They know how to serve up some movie-worthy imagery, but they're a cartoon.  They pander to what civilians expect to see when you watch a retired general.  For myself, I can't imagine actually serving under any of these blowhards.  It would be a nightmare!

As a member of the military, the uniform weighs very heavily on us.  Ask any veteran and they'll tell you that, in uniform, you represent the entirety of the US Armed Forces (or the entire country if you're overseas) as well as every person that ever wore the uniform before you or will in the future.  That's a pretty full load; there's not a lot of room for personal politics alongside all of that.  So we push it down.  We all have our points of view, but we are instruments of national policy, not practitioners.

We know how thin the veneer of "polite society" really is.
Anybody that has been to very troubled regions of the world will tell you: we're all about  three degrees of separation from "The Walking Dead."  A relatively brief interruption in the basic systems that keep our society flowing will turn people into the basest version of ourselves in a matter of days.

Starvation, dehumanization, genocide, all protracted for years and even generations on end.  These things cannot be unseen or unfelt.  And when we come back home (thank you for your service), the constant nattering of "first-world problems" from people who have never seen true suffering grates on us like nails on a chalkboard.

We deploy in support of our brothers and sisters; not the mission.
This isn't a politically partisan post, but a recent example sticks out for me, and stuck in my craw at the time.  When Chief Petty Officer Ryan Owens was killed during a raid in Yemen, the White House came to its own defense, claiming "he believed in the mission."  It was a disgusting display and it was total bullshit.  Chief Owens believed in not letting others carry his load.  He believed that it was his turn to go into harm's way and he wasn't going to let anybody else take his place.

As I said before, politics and national policy aren't the job of a soldier.  Our job is to obey orders.  The reason we keep doing that job is the love and respect we have for our brothers and sisters on our left and right.  We may hate the mission; we may think it's completely hare-brained.  But we are going because our brothers and sisters will be there.  They're not going into that alone.  I've got their back, just like they have mine.  And I mean that literally.  The entire fabric of the military depends on this bond.

We have seen, first hand, the consequences of foreign policy decisions.
There's one fundamental truth about the presidency every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, and Marine understands:  the president decides who lives and dies.  Either through action or inaction, the president will either send troops into harm's way, or decide to keep the troops home, allowing others to continue to suffer in far-away places.  The decision to apply diplomacy, provide foreign aid, condemn in the United Nations, or just take an unscheduled trip to a hot spot will have a direct impact on events on the ground.  And nothing happens in isolation.  Dominoes fall and fates are sealed, one way or the other.

As I sit here, I have a hard time thinking of a completely "successful" foreign policy decision during my adult life.  And I was there on site for quite a few of them.  When I hear people rant for "obliterating ISIS" or "taking out so-and-so," my first thought is to cringe at the train wreck I see coming.  My second is to suggest that this patriotic individual should get right on that his-own-damn-self.

Governing, by and large, isn't about winning and losing.  Most times, it's about holding things together. the best you can.  Every now and then, you get a chance to make real progress.  But, in all of them, there is an element of life and death.  And I'd just as soon people not be so free with throwing mine in the fire for a passing fad of political football.

We really don't understand why you don't get it.
Once you've been exposed to the world through the experience of military service, there is no going back.  You simply can't put the blinders back on.  The world is simultaneously smaller and unimaginably huge.  It's both simpler and infinitely more complex.  We see a new sort of truth about things and how they work.  It's more pragmatic, more jaded.  It's both skeptical and optimistic.  Maybe we've traded our rose-colored glasses for camouflage ones, but the things people say (either about us or the things we've seen and experienced) never cease to amaze.


  1. Wow. A divide, separation, wall, us and them, I never knew existed.

    1. That's true. In many ways, there is a divide. What I hope we can all focus on is that there's an aspect of "us and them" in all of us, if we allow it to be that way. We all have our stories and our histories. We can either use those as justification to draw differences or use them as a way to draw the strength of true diversity of thought and experience. We overcome the potential for division (whatever form it may take) by exposing ourselves to the new, by listening and understanding. By coming to the collective realization that truth is actually a lens, crafted from our experiences, through which we view the world around us. We overcome it by (forgive the cliche) realizing that we are far more united than divided, that differences are not frightening or threatening, and that we are truly stronger together.