These days my son is in uniform. He is a bright and fresh Midshipman at the US Merchant Marine Academy who frequently finds himself walking the streets of Manhattan in that uniform. He and most of his friends are amazed at the attention that a uniform brings in these times. When I wore that same uniform on those same streets almost 40 years ago, I joked that I never needed money in my pocket if I found myself in a bar. If it was an old man’s bar, the aging veterans from World War II would usually buy me a drink. If it was a young person’s bar, I wouldn’t get served. In any case, I didn’t need any money.
It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to see that the populace generally recognizes and appreciates the service of America’s veterans. One need only watch a sporting event these days to see the military color guard, the vocalist in uniform or the live feed from some forward base in Afghanistan to gain a perspective on how much public opinion has changed in America.
As a veteran myself, I must confess that I am sometimes uncomfortable with the attention it can bring. It seems as though all veterans are depicted as heroes. Who’s to say? I feel much more comfortable in my service being characterized as simply patriotic. Not everyone can be a hero. Circumstances dictate that. But everyone can be patriotic, even if you are not a veteran. I wish our number of patriots would exceed our numbers of veterans by a factor of ten to one. Then we would have something.
If there is a sense of unanimity with how our citizens express their feelings about our veterans, I sense a disconnection with how our government acts towards them. It came to me as I went shopping for items to support our troops in Afghanistan. I had a list that contained a number of interesting items. Beyond the obvious sinful joys of spices for humdrum MREs and packages of beef jerky were some items that I found a bit bizarre. There are urgent requests for items such as socks and foot powder; soap and toilet paper; feminine hygiene products and underwear.
Now, we’ve seen the newsreels of the main operating bases in the Near East. They contain many comforts of home, including Burger Kings and TGI Fridays. Please don’t get me wrong: I do not wish to deny our troops of any comfort they can get. I simply cannot understand how a logistical chain that can deliver two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onion-on-a-sesame-seed-bun to Kandahar can’t get foot powder, socks and underwear to a forward operating base. These are not creature comforts; they are the essentials of keeping a fighting force ready to engage.
Our Defense budget exceeds $600 billion dollars. We can procure stealth fighters, smart bombs and munitions and put them on target. Why must we rely upon warm hearted Americans to conduct drives to fill boxes of necessities for our troops stationed on the pointy edge of the spear in regions and under conditions too harsh for us to imagine even in a bad dream? Are our government priorities so upside down that we cannot fulfill a basic promise to our troops to provide the best equipment possible to succeed in taking the fight to the enemy? I, for one, will keep on shopping. I only wish that I could revert to Slim Jims and Trail Mix.
While we are on the subject of honoring our veterans, the government has failed again to honor our warriors from cradle to grave. This week, additional revelations of mishandling of our soldiers remains through Dover Air Force Base have emerged. Body parts have been disposed of at landfills. Several months ago came revelations at Arlington National Cemetery, our nation’s most sacred of burial grounds, that graves were mismarked. According to the Washington news reports, “Army investigators found hundreds of mix-ups, including wrongly marked or empty graves, one with eight sets of cremated remains, and some remains which could not be identified.” And let us not forget the scandals at Building 18, the rat and insect infested facility at Walter Reed Army Hospital that was uncovered in media investigations in 2007.
This pattern of behavior belies the stated commitment that our nation has made to our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. Our country makes a solemn obligation to its warriors. The words of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address are poignant:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Not everyone in uniform will become a hero. Circumstances will dictate that. But simply wearing a uniform transforms every individual into a patriot. And patriots deserve to be treated with all of the respect that a grateful nation can bestow. I have never been comfortable with the term Happy Veterans Day. I always thought that a simple thank you was more than sufficient. Thank you.