Brown: Walk That Veteran Talk

Our civilians and military have never been more divided — but we still need respect. ​

by Matthew Brown | 2/23/17 12:30am

According to statistics from the Department of Defense, fewer than 0.5 percent of Americans serve in the armed forces while less than seven percent of the population have ever served in the military. Of the country’s veteran population, approximately half are over the age of 60. More elected officials in the United States have never served before than at any prior time in our history while the shrinking pool of families that shoulder the burden of armed service are disproportionately generational fighters hailing from middle- and working-class backgrounds.

Compare this situation with the end of the Vietnam War and conscription in 1975. Twelve percent of Americans had fought in some capacity in Vietnam, and 70 percent of Congress were veterans. Such statistics reveal a stark reality: since the end of World War II, the peak of American military participation, there has been a growing divide between the civilian population and our military families. This context affects our national discourse about troops and veterans, especially in how they should be treated and supported.

Civilian Americans feel compelled to honor our men and women in uniform, and rightfully so. Such platitudes, however, all too often prove empty given the treatment that veterans and their families receive on their return to civilian life. The challenges facing military members and their families are misunderstood, with misconceptions of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder or fetishized visions of war pervading the American imagination. Per a 2014 investigation by The Washington Post, 51 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans do not feel the military does enough to help veterans transition back to civilian life while 56 percent of veterans gauged government efforts to help veterans as “not good” or “poor.” Mental health issues and poverty disproportionately affect the veteran community, with 8.6 percent of homeless people in this country having served in the military. Every day, 20 veterans commit suicide in this country. The statement “support the troops” is meaningless when the communities that veterans live in and their respective governments do not follow through on that declaration.

The sad reality is that the division between military and civilian life means that these issues are far removed from the majority of Americans who do not have an active service member or veteran in their family. As most of the population and our elected officials are not privy to the lived experiences of veteran communities, many issues go unattended, grievances unheard and experiences misinterpreted. As fellow citizens of this country, we should be looking for ways to care for and better the lives of our vets, to be a voice on behalf of those who put their lives on the line to ensure our security. Instead, veterans are often only cited in national discussions for political reasons, where patriotic rhetoric and simplistic assertions are used to end debate, often in contexts that have nothing to do with the actual issues facing veterans.

In the chaotic din of President Donald Trump’s implementation of an executive order banning immigration from select majority-Muslim countries, the Chief Executive Officer of Starbucks Coffee, Howard Schultz, announced that the company would strive to hire 10,000 refugees globally over the next five years. The move infuriated many, with a movement resurrecting the hashtag #BoycottStarbucks trending on social media. Amid this, many cheekily wondered why Starbucks would not hire 10,000 veterans instead. Never mind that Starbucks was already near the end of an initiative started in 2013 meant to do just that, nor that the 8,800 veterans who are currently employed by Starbucks issued a statement standing with their company: veterans were an empty rallying cry, a passionate appeal to a demographic otherwise ignored in American society. Such events are commonplace in American political discourse, as veterans are used as rhetorical punching bags in debates largely unrelated to the military, all while actual issues facing veterans and the armed forces are overlooked.

A more salient recent event that highlighted the role of veterans in our society is the high-profile protest of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick, angry at the treatment and condition of black America, said that he would not stand for the national anthem before the season’s games. The move infuriated and elated the country, reinvigorating perennial debates over race and police brutality while also spurring a national conversation about free speech, appropriate protest and the relationship between patriotism and our armed forces. A veteran who served in Iraq, Dorian Majied, disapproved of Kaepernick’s move, seeing it as flagrant disrespect to not only the national anthem but also a personal attack on those who had fought for the values that Kaepernick was supposedly shunning. The diversity of the veteran community, however, meant that there were also ample numbers of veterans who supported Kaepernick’s protest, with #VeteransForKaepernick trending on social media in tandem with those calling for a boycott of 49ers’ games. Despite the diversity in reaction among veterans themselves, the national conversation largely painted Kaepernick’s move as anti-military, anti-police and anti-American, a personal attack on the values and individuals who protect them.

The takeaway from these examples is that those who serve this country are used in political debate as an emotional deflection from actual issues. In neither of the cases above were the issues really juxtaposed. There is no reason, for instance, that we cannot both support and accept refugees while also ensuring the well-being of our troops, both during and after their service. There is no reason that one cannot have respect for those who have served while also criticizing systems and policies that marginalize American citizens. Indeed, there is no reason why one’s patriotism cannot be as multi-faceted as the issues at hand and the country in which we live. When those who criticize state violence and disagreeable policy also attack the men and women executing said policy, they are falling into the trap set by those who would have the American public conflate criticism of an issue with the lives and livelihoods of our fellow Americans.

Therefore, it is important, even necessary, to have debates about contentious issues such as immigration, police brutality and military intervention without bringing in our men and women in uniform. For those supposedly defending the troops, it can be construed as an insincere appeal to emotion where none need be, while critics might easily find themselves misunderstanding the livelihoods, reasons and patriotisms expressed by veterans, troops and their families. We should be talking about veterans and those who serve, but in the proper context and hopefully in discussions centered on how to better help veterans and their families.

The relatively low-population numbers of those employed in the armed forces is not an inherently bad thing, rather the result of our nation’s decision to have a professional, voluntary military over a conscripted defense force. The cultural chasm that exists between civilian and soldier, however, does not and should not exist, with the onus to bridge it falling on the civilian population to support the troops.

As the majority of the electorate, we — the civilian population — must listen to our veterans and troops, and then hold elected officials accountable in crafting policy that properly aids those who served. As civilians, it is our civic duty to care about military and veteran issues, to listen to these communities and understand the unique challenges they face. Civilians owe it to our troops to remain politically vigilant and conscientious of American military power, so that our men and women are sent to fight for defense of country and protection of our values, not hawkish saber-rattling or jingoistic ego. We must do more than simply say, “Thank you for your service.” Instead, we must express gratitude through action.

We are completely capable of accomplishing our civic duty and we should have been fulfilling them for decades. The fact that we haven’t has been because the well-being of our troops has not been centered in political debate. We should put such discussions at the forefront of our national conversation, where conversations about our nations armed forces belong. The next time politicians discuss our nation’s troops, let’s hope that their well-being, jobs and opinions are the topic, and if not, let’s change the conversation.