Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘decency

How Things Turn Out

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I haven’t even hardly looked at stats for this blog lately, though I notice it keeps getting hits, a few here and there, for the odd search term that turns up, or whatever else. People come, read a page or two, and leave. Such is the Internet. I didn’t write this with much regard to that, otherwise I would have promoted it a lot more than I have. And frankly, it’s as much a reminder of stories for me as anything. Even the ones I can’t tell, there are cues salted throughout the posts which remind me of them, which keep them relatively clear in my mind.

What leads me to post again is a sequence of events that directly relate to this story. And I also want to circle back on something I wrote about last year that’s come into focus again. But I’ll get to that later.

When I started this blog, just after learning I was headed to Afghanistan, I shared it with my coworkers and was part of an internal promotion about their policies about hiring military/ex-military folks. This turned into more than I expected it to be and I wound up being part of big press push, which did actually shock me because I didn’t know about the scale of it until some people pointed it out to me.

So, a couple of weeks ago, sitting at home on my couch fiddling around with my iPad I get a note through Facebook from a name I don’t recognize. A friend of a friend, it turns out, who somehow stumbled upon the story that I was featured in which also covered veterans transitioning out of the military and into civilian employment. He searched for me on Facebook and found me based on the mutual friend. This man’s story is one I have heard before. He’s spent most of his adult life as an infantry soldier, and the years of physically intense work have finally taken their toll. His body can’t do it anymore, and so he’s about to be released on a medical category.

He tells me he would be in my debt if I could help him figure out how to find a job in the financial services industry because he thinks he would be good at it – he has the people skills that are the key to sales – the special sauce that you can’t teach people.

I tell him there would be no debt, and that I consider myself obliged to help him, as I would any soldier. As others have done for me.

A wise old Sergeant Major told me once, as I was trying to cope with the death of a good friend in Afghanistan, “The life we have chosen requires us to hold each other up in times of trouble.”

Read that line again. Read it slowly and deliberately. “The life we have chosen…” We didn’t just take a job. We took on a lifestyle, not just work. Even me as a member of the Reserve Force. I became part of something much bigger than just a job. “…requires us…” This isn’t optional. It’s part of the deal. “…to hold each other up in times of trouble.” Even though I am “only” a Reservist, a part time soldier, my Regiment and the Army more broadly is like a second family. In some ways, they are closer than my actual family. That awful weekend in December 2008 when I heard that statement, I heard something else amazing. Sitting in a funeral home at the visitation for our fallen friend, one of my friends noted the number of people who turned up who we hadn’t seen in years. “Weddings and funerals, that’s the only time we seem to run into each other.” And then came the line that really stuck.

“Well, that’s family for you.”

That’s what it is. It’s family.

So, on with the story. I followed the emails with a phone call, and a long rant about Veterans Affairs greeted me, followed by an effusive if unnecessary apology. I know the experience. I fought Veterans Affairs to get an injury recognized as being service-related, and eventually threw up my hands and gave up – it was a minor claim and I just didn’t have the energy to keep at it. The system sucks though. They’ll deny your claim, then give you a lawyer to fight them. For ages. And the hope sometimes seems to be that you’ll eventually go away. Unless it’s a major, life-altering thing where you can’t afford to. But they’ll still fight as long as they can, in case you do finally break. I hate to sound cynical, and I know there are people working hard at VAC to make things better, but no one is likely to tell you it works well.

Armed with more information, I then shared the story with a military networking group I know. And within minutes, people I don’t know – and who don’t know the individual who sought me out – were already engaging. Some just tossed out ideas. Some gave contacts who might help. One offered to have his firm and connections in the industry try to help. One put me in touch with someone from Wounded Warriors who are getting their “release navigation specialist” to help my new friend – my brother whom I have never met – get what he is due and get on with his life.

So this ties into a second thing – and something I touched on ages ago in this blog – about the whole “Support The Troops” line. Last Sunday, an associate professor at Virginia Tech by the name of Steven Salaita published an article on Salon.com, a generally liberal leaning website, entitled “No, thanks: Stop saying “support the troops””. The subtitle/synopsis of the article is key: “Compulsory patriotism does nothing for soldiers who risk their lives — but props up those who profit from war”.

Predictably, right leaning websites, blogs, and so on seized on it. One, examiner.com, wasted no time attacking Salaita’s post by presenting excerpts out of context, and essentially excising what he had to say. As the internet tends to do, this elicited scads of comments. I am of the opinion that social media comments are often the best evidence of why our species is doomed, especially when they are anonymous. The responses were predictable: loads of “Internet Tough Guy” offers of violence or “Come say that to my face” statements. Loads of “Go back where you came from!”, which worked well with the photograph of Mr. Salaita included with the article, which evidences his Arab heritage. For the record, he born in Virginia. His father is from Madaba, Jordan (which is the centre of Orthodox Christianity in Jordan, I visited last year) and his morther is from Nicaragua, of Palestinian heritage. He omits any mention of religion from his bio, not that it matters. The comments get rich when they talk about how “the troops” are “defending his freedom”, while essentially attacking him for exercising his freedom of speech. That, in the words of my favourite high school English teacher from way back when, is a whole lot of cognitive dissonance.

The article – as I have linked above – is worth a read. The author suffers from what I like to call the Dawkins Syndrome, after noted atheist and scientist Dr. Richard Dawkins. Dawkins generally writes with a solid thesis in mind, and good arguments, but often falls into a trap of being unable to resist the urge to toss in some unnecessarily polemic statements which stop some from reading. In the middle of the article, you will likely spot where this happens to Salaita. I broadly agree with his premise though. “Support the troops” has become, for many but not all, a trite, vacuous, throwaway statement. It’s become a means of feeling better about not thinking critically about global events. I remember all too well when before the war in Iraq became reality that those who dared to question the wisdom of a war of choice against a country which had nothing to do with 9/11, and without evidence of the claims of WMD were told to shut up. “Why don’t you support the troops?” “Why do you hate your country?” I remember as well in those days that people said things like, “Even if you don’t agree, you have to support the President because we are at war.” It’s funny how that went out the window when President Bush left office and President Obama was inaugurated, but that’s a rant for another time and another place. What this is is precisely what Professor Salaita warns of: that “support our troops” as rote, as jingoistic patriotism in the form of slogans becomes essentially a demand upon the public that they not think, that they not ask questions, and that they not dissent.

Dissent is the highest form of patriotism, and asking questions and demanding explanations should be the duty of citizens of a modern liberal democracy. Creating a mythical entity of “the troops”, who would take umbrage at being “unsupported” by citizens daring to ask why they are deployed where they are, is totally antithetical to that. It is repugnant to me. History is replete with examples of the horrible impact of a citizenry which stops questioning what its government does.

It is to me similarly appalling when politicians throw the phrase out, while their actions demonstrate nothing of the sort. This is not confined to any particular political party or ideology, that mythical entity of “the troops” is employed by all of them in different ways. It is fair to say that maintaining militaries is an expensive undertaking, and that it involves tradeoffs. Eisenhower long ago warned of the danger of the “military-industrial complex”, and he was right. Politicians must seek to strike a balance between maintaining such forces as are necessary to defend national interests and sovereignty, and providing any number of other social programs which are demanded by the broader public. The military must make do with the envelope it is allocated, and get on with the jobs it is given to do within reason. The problem that can arise is that politicians can easily make glib statements about how much they “support the troops” while giving them jobs to do for which they aren’t adequately resourced. Or they can make the statement while cutting the Veterans Affairs budget or overhauling benefits. Or voting against bills which seek to help veterans transition to civilian careers when their service is complete – either voluntarily or involuntarily. Often this is a matter of political necessity in trying to strike that balance I mentioned, otherwise, well, I don’t really know what drives it. I have ideas, but they’re not unique and you can read about them elsewhere from other writers.

You will perhaps note I’m not limiting my comments to what happens in Canada, and I am not about to start shilling for or attacking any politicians specifically. I can’t really, to begin with, because my position requires me not to attack government policy, and I won’t because that isn’t the point I’m trying to make. I am duty bound to serve the duly elected government and to support its decisions regardless of my personal opinion of them. Why? Because civilians control the military through the democratic process. And rightly so. I’m not going to write on specific issues because if you’re interested plenty of other sources do so. If I’ve kept you engaged this long and you’re interested I’m sure you will find them. If you get interested and get engaged, in whatever way you see fit, then I’ve done what I set out to do.

So then, is “support the troops” a universally terrible sentiment? No. Not in the context of understanding the risks of it. If you want to really, truly support the troops, then be an informed citizen. Ask questions. Demand answers that aren’t just glib throwaway statements, what in political science lectures are called “bromides” in reference to sleeping pills. Don’t just think of soldiers deployed wherever they are, but ask why they are there, whose interests are being served, and what their role is. If you want to do more, then I’ve provided links to organizations you might choose to support that make real differences in the lives of “the troops” and their families.

Do something. Don’t buy some ribbon magnet at Walmart (which literally does do nothing to support anyone but Walmart and the magnetic ribbon industry), give a donation to Soldier On or the Wounded Warrior Foundation. Look around your community and see what exists. I received some lovely packages from a couple of wonderful ladies who just wanted to make life deployed a little better and they can always use donations for those sorts of causes. Don’t have money to donate? No problem. You have time and energy and that is as valuable. Write a letter to deployed soldiers – they’re free to send generally, and if it winds up in the hands of someone like I was while I was “over there”, you’ll make someone’s day and get a response back. Write to your elected representatives and demand explanations as to why we are engaged where we are engaged, and don’t just take the answer and be gone but think it through and see if it really makes sense. Just do someting that’s more than blindly braying. Even if it makes you despise the military and its employment, I’ll feel more “supported” knowing your point of view is the product of thought and engagement than I ever will feel supported by some armchair general chickenhawk cheerleading for wars in which he would never fight.