Mythmaking and the Veteran

As Veteran’s Day approached, my daughter came home with a form to fill out about any canstockphoto6239811veterans she knew for the school display. She wanted to fill out the form about me and attach a picture on the bottom. I tried to encourage her to do a sheet on her great grandfather, who was a handsome man in his Navy dress uniform. I, however, have never liked pictures of myself. It’s not false modesty or some sort of facial dysmorphia, it’s just that unless it includes a cat scan of my brain activity, a list of my favorite books and pictures of my family, I feel like it’s a false representation of my personal values. And plus, I can never get my hair right.

My daughter’s friends had expressed disbelief that her mother had been in the Army, so I caved, sending along my doe-eyed 19 year old self dressed in Class As. Shortly after this, teachers and staff would comment, thanking me for my service. I find this to be extraordinarily awkward. I try not to make it more awkward by saying “it paid for college, it was peacetime, I spent most of it drunk or hungover and I left the military with a chip on my shoulder for mindless bureaucracy.” Not all service is equal.

The Army of today seems entirely different from the Army I joined almost 30 years ago. It was the end of the Cold War. I served in Military Intelligence as a Russian Linguist in what was then called West Germany. Let’s just say we spent a lot of time in the field and standing around outside motor pools chain smoking. I never found us to be a particularly impressive bunch. The work was hard, dull and rarely what we’d been trained for, unless being really, really smart inventory takers and mechanics was part of our occupational specialty.

I want to be honest, because I look at the tough, shitty work the military has to do today and it simply is not equal to the passive grind of my experience. Perhaps it is because I am getting dotty in my middle age years, but I shrug when I think about getting screamed at in basic or spending hours guarding nothing. The lives that were lost in surrounding units involved someone getting skewered by a nighttime antenna and civilians who died when a tank rolled over their car. And all this was second and third hand information. IEDs were never on our mental or literal landscape.

I met a lot of people in the Army, that in today’s terms would be described as being “on the spectrum” or with borderline personality disorders. And then they were armed. Since then I’ve discovered that any behemoth bureaucracy can serve as an umbrella for sociopaths and miscreants, and camouflage for untreated neurological conditions, so the military has no corner on that market. Many of them go on to be C-Level executives or servers at fast food franchises. Fortunately, most are unarmed.

It is true that I had some idealism, some sense of patriotism. It was the Reagan years, after all. But mostly, I grew up in poverty. No one talked to me about financial aid. No one in my family had graduated from college except for my grandfather. I needed a way out. The military provided me with that opportunity and for that, I will forever be grateful.

As to gratitude for service, the real ‘thank yous’ go to those service people who have been or are currently, on the ground, in the air and on the seas who have waited in restless boredom for the action that will inevitably come. You know who you are. I salute you and wish you a safe return home so that you can enjoy the awkwardness of stranger gratitude as well. You deserve it.

WAYS TO REALLY HELP VETERANS THAT DON’T INVOLVE MAGNETIC RIBBONS ON A VEHICLE:

National Coalition for Homeless Veterans

National Suicide Prevention Line

Disabled American Veterans

39 Comments

Filed under Personal, Uncategorized

39 responses to “Mythmaking and the Veteran

  1. YES!!!

    I did not serve. I have close family members who have or are. I think it is important to recognize them in the ways you suggest. Oh and possibly by paying them a living wage and not saying “thank you” while cutting off benefits.

    • I also think mythologizing veterans as if they are superhuman only serves to disconnect them in people’s minds from real problems that afflict them. The cultural worship of violence (movies, video games) also fails to teach about the consequences of throwing humans into stressful, life-threatening situations by not showing life after action. There are just so many factors at play here.

  2. I’ve always seen veterans day as a chance for people to think of and thank veterans, so they can largely go back to ignoring them the other 364 days a year. Kind of like Mothers Day or Thanksgiving.

    • Perfect satire, my friend. It’s also the day when Americans get reminded that we’re in a war that’s been going on for 12 years (oh yeah, I forgot about that) but they quickly return to that Honey-Kardash-freak show that is American TV.

      • We live in a strange culture, where once-a-year calendar dedications or assigning a given color of ribbon gives people some sense of fulfilled obligation. Our society seems especially vacuous to me just now.

        • I just think that we have to keep redirecting people’s attention, like toddlers intent on gnawing the buttons off the remote. There are a lot of people working hard to say “Look here, these issues are important.” They give me hope.

  3. Tiptoeing carefully, I understand and applaud your broader point, while I also commend you for serving in the military. I needed help paying for college back in the ’80s, too, and there was absolutely no way I was enlisting to do it. I considered the Navy for a hot minute and then picked a buffet of student loans that took me 12 years to pay off.

    I’ve heard a statistic bandied about that 98+% of Americans have never served in the military. So it’s rather spectacular that you did, whatever the reasons. And Russian Linguist, chain smoking/hungover or not? Very cool.

    I’ve had people ask me to thank my father for his service on Veterans Day which does nothing but chap me off. Lame.

    • No need to tiptoe, seriously. I can only speak to my own experiences and choices. I’m sure that there are soldiers that served alongside me that have a very different perspective and certainly people who didn’t see the military as a desperate choice. For me, it was not just the college tuition, but also an escape from a life, family and small town. I believe that it was a choice that ultimately saved my life in many ways. I am proud of my diligence and of making critical choices for myself, but I see my service for what it was – a choice and frankly, not a risky one at the time (I was 17 and planned on, you know…never dying).

      I don’t have much patience with lip service and find oft-repeated sentiments to be easy and empty. A lot of the veteran sentiment is a hold over from the Vietnam war, when veterans returned to a divisive country where they were sometimes treated with contempt. Now we go overboard and talk out of both sides of our mouths saying things like “we don’t support the war, but we support the troops”. But it’s a useless verbal support that doesn’t prevent their homelessness or suicide or domestic abuse when they return home. And my caveat should be that many veterans return home uninjured, without PTSD and go on to lead happy, productive lives or become irritating motivational speakers.

      It’s a complicated issue which is not even slightly ameliorated with a magnetic ribbon.

  4. Thank you for this, especially the part about putting our money where our mouth is with adequate pay, mental health support, job support, support for families. The rhetoric really makes my stomach churn, having grown up without my dad because he was killed in active duty. I mentally wrote a post for Veterans Day but didn’t have the time to write it. Now I’m thinking I might. It will likely piss off a lot of people.

    • Write it. I would be really interested to hear your story. You have a unique point of view to share. I haven’t gone too far off the beaten path here, simply because having a discussion of the merits (or lack of) going to war would make me shrieking and irrational. I like to save that for special events.

      • I want to write about the emptiness of all the platitudes and false patriotism. Whose life is more important than any others? Whose service to our country “counts”? What should we REALLY do to create a free, just society? Do wars in other places really protect OUR freedom? Really? Does an educational and economic system that pushes so many young people into the military because it’s the only way they can find a job, housing, education, structure, a dream of a future really deserve all the unquestioning platitudes about glory and service and honor? That’s my rant. I want to do some fact checking and stats collecting before I write it out.

        • I want to expose the exploitation and propaganda for what they are. I want to look into the class differences, the socioeconomic factors at play. This is the real class war right here: lives on the line to protect the profits of the war machine. End rant.

  5. I was a Meteorologist at Ramstein AB, Germany and briefed F-16 and F-4 sorties. We had NATO Top Secret Clearances to work in the Command Post during chemical warfare practices… Weather is never really boring but I am hearing you with regards to the war time patriots, who live in the muck and mire, and people shoot guns at you.

    • There were interesting aspects to my job the few times I actually got to do it, but most time was spent on post duties, field time freezing our Kevlars off and equipment maintenance. After reading numerous accounts of military service in Afghanistan, I see a lot of that life, too – the hurry up and wait life. But what they’re waiting for carries a lot more gravity, since, as you point out, they’re targets.

  6. A very thought-filled and honest post. That equals impact. I was particularly struck by this part of your post:

    “I met a lot of people in the Army, that in today’s terms would be described as being “on the spectrum” or with borderline personality disorders. And then they were armed. Since then I’ve discovered that any behemoth bureaucracy can serve as an umbrella for sociopaths and miscreants, and camouflage for untreated neurological conditions, so the military has no corner on that market.”

    Yes to the reality that any behemoth bureaucracy can serve as a gathering place for dysfunction (personally, I could cite organized religion and higher education) but, as you point out, ” . . . and then they were armed.” Gives one pause for thought.

    Thanks for laying your truth on the line.

  7. Luanne

    Hey Michelle, thank you for your service. just kidding, sort of. GREAT post! Sorry for shouting, but it’s really thought-provoking.

    • Very funny, Luanne. I’m always glad when someone describes a post as thought-provoking. This blog is inherently self-involved, but I hope using my experiences adds another perspective to many from which to view an idea or issue. Actually, that sounds a little precious and grandiose. I just like writing about random moments that occur, so maybe I’m more surprised when it does provoke thought.

  8. As an Air Force veteran I agree with much of what you said here. Too bad we wait until a person is a veteran to want to treat them right. No matter what one did while they served, peacetime or wartime, the person made a personal commitment to serve their Nation’s military. After 15 years of active duty I can say I have met some great people and a few with a screw or two loose, but I have never regretted meeting anyone I ever have met. Different people think differently and feel pride differently. For some, a person’s military pride becomes a target for people to attack, and that is just plain sad. I never understood how the un-informed are the ones being judgmental of others.

    Great post, I always enjoy reading your work!

    • I met lifelong friends while in the military and then others that I expect to see on America’s Most Wanted list. Like any organization, the spectrum of human pathologies is apparent. I have friends who had similar experiences, and will forever be proud of their military service, so I understand that perspective will be different for each veteran.

      After I did 4 years of active duty, I went into the nearest reserve unit, which was a MASH unit and got trained and reclassified as a combat radio operator (nobody needed Russian Linguists!). It was shortly before Operation Desert Storm and we started getting briefed for deployment.

      It was at that moment that military service crystallized for me – the tremendous fear and sense of impending sacrifice. Having to leave a life, friends, home and go to a place that was not only hostile to Americans, but also severely restrictive for me as a service woman. The unit ended up standing down. It was a moment, though, that I’ll never forget when I think about the men and women serving today.

      • I recall my emotions just prior to having boots on the ground in the beginning of Desert Storm, I was scared, I was excited, but most of all I knew that I was there to do my job. We were trained to remove emotion from the equation, bury it as deep as possible, and perform the tasks we were trained to execute.

        When I was part of the initial “push” for the Liberation of Kuwait it was the first real opportunity to see with my own eyes how destructive war is on the human race. As a Munitions Specialist, I remembered what I saw for years to come as it reminds me the lethality and consequences that are carried out every day around the world.

        I don’t regret my service, I don’t regret the job I had, and if given the choice I would do it all over again, just this time I would do it twice as hard.

        • I tend to believe the true meaning of courage is having fear and trepidation but marching forward regardless. Often, good training takes over where emotions might paralyze.

          I have strong feelings about the human propensity for war and destruction, but I didn’t want to muddy the waters on a post about being a veteran. In some ways, it’s an extraordinarily complicated issue and in others, not so much. Either way, “winning” seems like a straw horse, since no one comes out of these conflicts unscathed on either side.

          Very glad to have your perspective here. Thank you.

        • The human reflection is always the window to seeing the world through another’s eyes.

          Great post my friend, great post.

  9. Thanks so much for sharing this. Your honesty is refreshing while still offering space and respect for people whose experiences have been different from yours. I think that the public in general is not as vapid as we seem, and sometimes magnets and platitudes mask actual active support, whether for the groups you suggested or others. At least I hope so. :)

    • We always speak of the thems and theys, but you’re right – there is likely a large contingent of the public that is not vapid. Unfortunately, our media and popular culture do a poor job of reflecting this. I would also say that it is perhaps less vacuousness and more the distractions and “busy-ness” of modern society that prevents a more mindful approach to issues. I know there are a lot of dedicated people doing serious work and immeasurable good, but it’s hard to know if it offsets everything else.

  10. napperscompanion

    I really enjoyed this post–genuine. Thanks and peace, John

  11. This is excellent, thank you for writing it and providing the links.

  12. I’m with you, Elyse. If we ask our military to make this sacrifice for others, we ought to be returning the favor in small and big ways.

  13. Thank you for linking to DAV, Michelle! We appreciate the support.

  14. My nephew is in Basic Training right now – I have mixed feelings about it but he is confident that this course of action will benefit his future career in law enforcement. My pop was a veteran who had nothing good to say about his service. He never identified as a veteran – he is buried in a veteran’s cemetery because it was a benefit he chose to use. I think that generationally there is a change in how we see men and women in the service – we acknowledge them profusely. My pop and contemporaries were looked down on – they never got that sense of appreciation. Perhaps the pendulum has moved to far, but I think it’s better to be overly grateful than to ignore someone’s service. But that’s just me.

    • I think gratitude is a wonderful thing, but I also think it provides an easy out, instead of taking action to help veterans to transition into civilian life, have better mental and physical health care and to be compensated appropriately while serving. I’m just weird, in that I’d rather be ignored!

      • My uncle was a career marine who served 4 tours in Vietnam. When he came back in country he would spend a week with us before traveling cross country to be with his family. On his return from the third tour he was pelted with rocks and rotten vegetables when he left base in uniform. He had not heard about the war protests and was taken completely by surprise. I don’t think he would have been comfortable with today’s overt expressions of gratitude, but those people calling him names and reviling him changed him. I totally agree that we need to do more for vets in transition, I grew up in a house with a father who never quite made a successful transition. We should do more than pay their restaurant tabs and thank them for their service. I think my pop was invisible, it was a shameful thing to be a vet in the 60-70s. That’s not the kind if anonymity you are talking about, I know.

        • These days, it would be hard to imagine that kind of behavior towards veterans. It would surely embitter someone who served. Considering that warriors since the beginning of time have been celebrated and welcomed home, the Vietnam era was an anomaly I hope we never repeat.

  15. Thank you. It’s really important to hear the stories of others. Life is seldom easy and we don’t often see another’s struggles, sometimes even when close.

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