Today is Veteran’s day, and I’ve been trying to think of a way to thank and honor those men and women who have ensured that I can sit here, safe and warm in my house, and proclaim, “George W. Bush is a Jerkass.”
Well, I have a friend, and she and her husband are both veterans. She wrote the following, and reprinting it here is the best tribute to Veterans, and the best way of saying thank you that I can think of.
This weekend, with Veteran’s Day coming up, a friend asked me “What are some things about people serving in the US military that you think we civilians under-appreciate or don’t understand?”
It was a tough question. On Veteran’s Day, it’s not only about those who have died, but those who have served and sacrificed and come away forever changed.
The military is really a separate culture within American culture. When we’d talk about “civilians,” it was almost like talking about a different species. How can someone understand, truly understand “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die” without living in that culture?
Before joining the military, I’d hear on the news “40 US troops were killed in today’s bombing of such-and-such” and think, “Gee, that’s sad.” But you know, in a way, it was just numbers. After joining the military, the word “troops” took on a whole new meaning. “Troops” meant me. My husband. My friends. My brothers and sisters. It meant loving, caring, intelligent, funny human beings were dead or injured.
When CNN would report, “The US has deployed several thousand troops to somewhere,” it meant that mothers were being sent away from their children. Sons were being sent away from their parents. Families and friends and lovers were being separated, never knowing if they’d ever see each other again.
Some of them WOULD never see each other again. Would never be able to get
that one last hug, a last kiss, hear a word of kindness or forgiveness. Yet these troops went willingly into that uncertainty.
When you hear “troops,” when any civilian hears “troops,” what does it mean to you? It’s such a sanitized word.
Another thing I wonder if civilians understand is this: service is often boring. Really boring. Running preventive maintenance checks on vehicles and equipment in the hot North Carolina sun at Fort Bragg. Sitting in a tent in a field in Korea in 10-degree weather waiting for aircraft to land. Driving through the desert in Saudi Arabia where everything looks the same on your way to your camp. Sitting in a foxhole in Panama in the rain, watching. Constantly going over common task training: how to treat a sucking chest wound. How to get your protective mask on as quickly as possible. How to disassemble and reassemble your M-16. Over and over.
Preparing, trying to stay prepared.
How boring is it? Someone sent a box of romance novels to my old unit when they were in Saudi. The guys in the unit snapped ‘em up to read faster than the women did.
No one talks much about the sitting around part.
The “troops” are people. They do wacky things too. Some of the guys in Saudi were going through magazine ads, writing to every company they could find saying, “We’re in the Persian Gulf. Could you send us a sample of X?” Some companies sent samples — and a few of the tents got their own pink lawn flamingoes and artificial raccoons.
There’s also some adrenalin rushes like when you get caught in an Anti-American riot in Seoul or run into an area marked with signs for chemical attack in the Saudi desert. Or get shot at.
Or have to shoot back.
In the back of your mind is this: you could die. You could lose an arm or a leg. You could die in a training accident. You try to keep this very, very far back in your mind.
But I think it’s always there.
Probably most importantly, and most difficult, is you have to trust in the chain of command that they will not use you poorly. You’ve taken an oath of service to your country, and you must trust that the orders you receive will allow you to be of service in some positive manner. I hear people say all the time, “If I were in the military, I would never have gone to Saudi” or “I would never have done those kinds of things they did in Vietnam/WWII/etc.” Truth is, maybe they wouldn’t — but they probably would.
Or they wouldn’t be in the military.
Because that trust is essential, even with the training we have in the Uniform Code of Military Justice and what constitutes an “illegal order.” You go where you’re deployed. You bomb the targets you’re supposed to bomb. You place the Claymore mines “front towards enemy” and you trust, you hope, it’s for a greater good.
You must live with it if, later, you find that there was little to no positive effect from your actions. Think of finding a baby bird and putting it back into its nest, after which the mother rejects it and it dies. You were trying to help, but nothing good came of it. Now imagine being involved in a military action where, at the end, nothing of significance has changed.
Military service changes you forever, even if you serve only a 4-year term in peacetime. You’ll never get those years back. Never.
And through all this, you know that civilians don’t much care about you. Not really. Oh, perhaps they’ll come out on Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, maybe lay out some flowers, wear a ribbon, but most will just see it as a day off from work.
Still we serve. We serve because the Constitution of the United States promises something good and true. We serve so that opposing viewpoints can take the stage, or the microphone, and protest actions they feel are unjust. We serve for ourselves, for our families, for our future. We serve for a variety of reasons, some selfish and some pure, in the hopes that something positive will come of it. On Veteran’s Day, I would wish that everyone would remember and think of the men and women who have served in the past and who serve today, and honor their humanity. The laughter, the tears, the love, the pride in a new baby, the intelligence, insight, and humor that is part of all of us. I wish people would take one moment to think of that girl in a tent somewhere in the desert, or that
guy in a foxhole in the jungle, and understand that it could be your daughter, your son, your wife, your husband.
Instead, I fear that when they hear “25 troops were killed in some foreign country today,” they won’t bat an eye.
It was just “troops.”
Of all it means to be a veteran, perhaps that may be the hardest thing of