Tuesday, November 12, 2013

“Thank you for your service”: Why Veterans Day Is So Hard for Me

I made it through another Veterans Day. I always find this day hard. I find it hard because… Wow, it’s complicated.

For the past decade, people who know I used to be in the US Navy (I was on active duty from 1990-94) often thank me for my service. I know they’re trying to be kind; they’re trying to do the right thing. You’re supposed to thank veterans on Veterans Day, right? That’s the thing to do.

Midshipman Hoke, long ago and far away.
But here’s the first odd part. I graduated from high school in 1986, and I decided to do Naval ROTC (NROTC) in college. Not one person thanked me for making the decision to “serve my country” back then. No one said anything positive about it, really. From the teachers and adults in my life who cared about me, I mostly got very concerned comments like, “Are you sure you really want to do that?” Or even, “I’m not so sure I like that you’re joining the military…” From my peers, I got shrugs and the occasional, “Why are you doin’ that?” Bottom line: No one seemed excited about my decision. No one told me they were proud of me. No one thanked me for “serving my country”. 

I think the unspoken stereotype was that “losers” join the military after high school.  It’s like the Bob Dylan lyric: “Join the army if you fail” (from “Subterranean Homesick Blues”).  So I don’t recall my hometown being particularly impressed.  As for NROTC itself while I was in college, I remember once on “drill day” (when you went to classes all day dressed in uniform) that someone (a civilian student) actually did spit on me and say rude things.  I remember often getting funny looks and even hostile looks on those days. I remember a couple of times when someone got up to move away from me when I sat near them in the lecture hall wearing my uniform.  I certainly cannot remember a single professor or student thanking me or saying how wonderful it was… I think a few of my (civilian) friends and dorm mates appreciated  how hard it was to be in NROTC in some ways, and sometimes asked very polite and thoughtful questions about it all. Those were probably the kindest reactions.

And for that matter, no one (other than the USO and other quasi-military entities) thanked me for my service while I was on active duty. And I don’t remember more than a tiny handful of people thanking me for my service after the fact, either. And that’s okay; I don’t expect to be thanked. I wasn’t a “war hero”; I served during the time of the Gulf War, but I was never sent to the Gulf and was never in combat. I wrote the proverbial “blank check with my life” like anyone else who volunteers, but fate didn’t cash it.  

Most of my active duty time was spent as a special agent in the Naval Investigative Service (now known as the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS).  I was so young (21-24 years old while a special agent) that I felt immortal; I never worried about my safety. Looking back, I realize there were times that I was in potential danger as a special agent, but I didn’t think much about it at the time.  Some of the things I did then would terrify me now, but I guess that’s part of the advantage of having young people in the military.  

Like just about anyone else in the military, I can tell you stories of harsh treatment and cruelty (mostly observing it – not so much was directed at me); I can tell you stories of absurd things that I did while in the military – things that would strike you as ridiculous if you heard the stories; and I can tell you stories of a few things I did that I didn’t feel good about doing… in some cases, things that still bother me to this day. I wasn’t the world’s best sailor by any means, but I did what I was asked. And I got my honorable discharge.  

Then I went back to graduate school, and almost twenty years later, here I am.

The interesting part is, things changed after 9/11. For the past decade-plus since 9/11, people do thank me for my service on Veterans Day.  I confess that on Facebook, I tend to post an old picture of myself in my uniform on Veterans Day.  And so people see it, and of course sometimes they feel the urge – or obligation – to say thanks. As I say, I know they mean to be kind and thoughtful and so forth.  And I guess I’m asking for it when I post the old picture in uniform; showing a picture of yourself in uniform on Veterans Day is sort of like begging for a compliment. So, I get my “thanks”.

I’m not sure why I post the picture. Somehow it’s irresistible to share these photos on the day. Part of it is, I was young! I was thin! I was much cuter than I am today. Why not show myself from “back in the day”? (Oh heck, I’ll go ahead and share an old picture in this very post!) But I guess part of it is, honestly, I’m a peacenik now… and I feel that serving active duty somehow gives me the right to speak my peacenik mind now and then – speaking out against war.

Back to my original point, I find it fascinating to be thanked for my military service by some folks who knew me when I joined the Navy and seemed to think nothing of it. I see the posts they write about how wonderful the men and women in the armed forces are, and I wonder… why didn’t they join the military back when they were young and fit? I’m sure the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines would have been happy to have them.  But I have to assume that it wasn’t an appealing option at the time.  And times do change, as do people.

It would seem that since 9/11, the militarism of this country has been on overdrive.  Veterans Day is a great opportunity to celebrate militarism and to perpetuate propaganda.  We are told to thank those in the armed forces for protecting our freedom; “freedom isn’t free!”

I have great compassion for the young men and women currently serving in the US military.  They have it much harder than my generation of veterans did in so many ways.  The never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan mean that they often have to serve multiple tours of duty in a combat zone, something that used to be virtually unheard of (for good reason). And the post 9/11 propaganda no doubt played into their decisions to join the military in the first place; I’ve heard many young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans say as much – that they joined to “get Osama Bin Laden”.  Their instincts were to be heroic. Their instincts were to do the right thing. But many times they come home and wonder how much of their service really was “in service” to their fellow citizens and freedom.  I will let them tell their own stories…

I cannot honestly say that I did one thing in my years in the US Navy that helped to keep you free. If you’re thanking me for protecting your freedom, really, I don’t deserve it.  I’m not sure what I did to make the world a better or safer place.  I did what I was asked, always. I’m just not sure how much good it did for anyone.

Part of the propaganda in the US is that we call the military “THE service”. It gets the definite article “the” treatment as though it were the most important type of service that an American could ever do.   But there are so many other ways to serve this country; there are so many other ways to serve humanity.

I don’t think I particularly deserve or warrant people thanking me for anything  -- in person or on Facebook, for that matter – but if you felt like thanking me for something, please, don’t thank me for something I did for four years almost twenty years ago… something that, as far as I can ascertain, didn’t do anything to help anyone. It would be more appropriate (again, if you really were kind enough to want to thank me for anything) to thank me for my activism or my efforts to work for social justice.  Not that I delude myself into thinking that I’ve been that successful in “saving the world” as an activist, mind you. But I’d like to think I’ve done more that was “thank you worthy” since my days in the US Navy ended.

The other thing that I find troubling about Veterans Day is that it feels like lip service. All over the TV and Internet and radio you see and hear special “thank you to our veterans” messages and images.  Politicians say how grateful they are for the men and women in the armed forces.  There are even Veterans Day parades and such.

But here’s the thing. First of all, I’ve been to the Boston Veteran’s Day Parade for most of the last several years (I march after it with Veterans For Peace). And I have to tell you, the crowds are very small. Not many people come to watch the Veterans Day Parade in Boston. That’s a fact.

But more importantly, how well do we really treat veterans when they come back from their service? It’s notorious how horribly returning Vietnam veterans were treated; they were called “baby killers” and people threw things at them and all sorts of other inexcusable stuff.  We’ve learned our lesson in this way; I don’t think the young vets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan get much of this cruel treatment… thank goodness. 

But what about the lasting stuff? What about the benefits? Veterans come back after multiple tours of duty in dangerous places, and sometimes they have PTSD. You should hear some of the stories they tell about how hard it is to get proper treatment for PTSD! It’s a crime, really, to send people into dangerous and even at times “crazy making” situations, and then not give them extensive mental health benefits when they come home.  Meanwhile, a shocking number of these young people are dying by suicide. It is inexcusable that they don’t get more help.

Unemployment is also shockingly high for these young veterans. They come back and have a tough time landing a job.  Yes, it’s a tough job market. But they are faring even worse than their peers who are not veterans. Instead of thanking a vet, I wish more people would hire them.  And education benefits for these vets aren’t what they used to be. My father went to school virtually forever on the G.I. Bill after World War II… today’s vets don’t get anything that extensive.

Older vets (from Vietnam and other earlier wars) don’t always get the best treatment either.  There’s a huge backlog at the VA.  And homeless rates for older veterans are disturbingly high.

If “thank you for your service” sounds odd to my ears, I can only imagine how painful and empty it must sound to some of these people who served in combat – fighting in the wars that we as a nation sent them to fight -- only to be kicked to the curb when they come home.

I wish we would become a nation of peace. I wish we wouldn’t use war as a tool of foreign policy; what happened to diplomacy? War is supposed to be, always, a last resort. It’s supposed to be “defense”, not offense. I wish we let Congress declare wars like the Constitution says they’re supposed to instead of having Presidential Administrations make the call. I wish we wouldn’t let business interests push us into so many wars.  (Yes, it’s all too often about oil and other money-making opportunities.)  I wish we honored and valued humanitarianism and compassion the way we do militarism. I wish, if we must have a military, that we had a draft. With today’s all-volunteer forces, you have a de facto economic draft.  How many wealthy people are veterans? How many wealthy people have adult children in the military? I wish, I wish, I wish…

I wish November 11 would go back to being Armistice Day, which it was from 1918 until 1954 – a day to remember how horrible war is, and a day to work for peace.

And it is true that “freedom isn’t free”. But we ourselves, civilians and military alike, will have to do the work of making sure that we keep our freedom. And most of that work needs to be done right here in the USA, not abroad, and not with bombs.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Ringing bells (gong) for peace...

This year, some folks from the UUCiA rang a gong on our front steps, 11 times at 11:00 a.m., as a prayer for peace.  It was a tradition for houses of worship to ring their bells for Armistice Day after World War I. Sometime after it became Veterans Day in 1954, this tradition largely went away.

Veterans Day | Armistice Day 2013 from Richard Hudak on Vimeo.

Here's hoping the tradition comes back!  Some houses of worship have big bells up in a steeple. But we rang this wonderful gong instead. May there be peace.