Friends and Family,
This Veterans Day, when you thank a soldier or veteran for their service…take a minute to think about what exactly you’re thanking them for in this new generation of conflict. I discuss this in my latest in TIME- All the best
WHAT WE’RE THANKFUL FOR
Underneath the regalia and pomp and circumstance, Veterans Day is somewhat of an awkward experience for both veterans and civilians in how we interact. For us veterans, it’s often hard to accept thanks for going to war, when we know others have done and sacrificed far more than we have. It’s hard because not all of us join the military for such benevolent, patriotic reasons. Some of us join to break free from our hometowns. Some join to test themselves. And let’s face it, a lot of folks are like me and joined for the free education.
But for the civilian, the act of thanking a veteran for their service is awkward as well. Not in the least because the gratitude isn’t genuine but rather because it’s too unfocused. It’s hard to thank someone when you truly have no idea what they’ve done. That’s not a flaw of character on the civilian’s part by any means but simply a narrative that I fear goes untold in today’s 24-hour news cycle.
When my military friends and I turn on the news, we relive the moments of violence and fear showcased on B-roll footage of soldiers in combat. I remember the adrenaline-charged feeling of firefights in Kandahar. My power was not in the finger on my rifle’s trigger, but rather the finger on my radio. Just as every good Army platoon leader, I trained vigorously for the decisive moment where I would call for fire upon my enemy. Calling for mortars and aviation fire is the bread and butter of the military profession. My soldiers relished the idea of raining down hell on Taliban positions off in the distance. And when the explosions erupted, they cheered. And I felt like a 24-year-old god holding nothing short of the wrath of the U.S. Army in his hands — just one radio click away.
But behind the scenes where the cameras don’t go, Taliban leaders would bundle their severely wounded teammates into a taxi cab, drive to the front gate of our outpost, kick the bleeding bodies out the door and take off before we could catch them. They expected us to medically treat and save the lives of their wounded fighters.
It breaks my heart to think that when American civilians thank my soldiers for their service in combat they thank them for the assumed bravery under fire. They thank them for putting their lives in danger. But this Veterans’ Day, I’d ask you to thank our soldier’s for something far more valuable and sacred that has truly saved more of our American lives than anything else: their compassion.
I remember one evening after a helicopter engagement that I ordered, two brutally injured Taliban fighters came to our gates. My medic, Specialist Mike Piegaro, a 21-year-old soldier from Florida, began to operate on the most critically wounded. I watched the Afghan’s eyes. He was about my age. He trembled and shivered on the operating table as cold wraps and iodine touched his skin. His gaze at the ceiling seemed to question of God, “How did I get myself into this? I want to go home.” As the fighter’s spasms increased with his anxiety, Specialist Piegaro stopped operating. He took off a glove, grabbed the Afghan’s hand and held tightly. He motioned the interpreter to his side. Mike looked into the Afghan’s eyes — a boy of similar age who just two hours ago had been trying to kill him — and in a calming voice, he said to him, “Relax, brother. Everything is going to be okay. You’re going to be okay.” The young Talib responded more to Mike’s body language than the interpreter’s translation. He leaned his head back, lowered his shoulders and allowed himself to be healed.
I look back on that day affectionately as humbling moment. Whereas I had felt so proud of myself for engaging my enemy with explosives, Mike had probably done more for Afghanistan and the United States by engaging the enemy with compassion. It was one of my proudest moments as a platoon leader, but the reality is that these sort of events happen every day in Afghanistan and Iraq. Medics and doctors from all services and ranks, spend countless stressful hours on operating tables and aid stations treating Afghan civilians and insurgents.
My good friend, Maj. Raj Shah is an F-16 fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force who, in his free time during his first Iraq tour, donned scrubs to help in the trauma station at Balad Air Base. One night he was assisting in the operating room when the tell-tale thumps of a landing Blackhawk helicopter signaled the arrival of an emergency casualty. Two injured men were quickly wheeled into the tent-covered operating room. One was an American Marine, the other an Iraqi. Raj was asked to assist with the Iraqi, who was being treated for gunshot wound. As he handed scalpels and bags of saline to the surgeons, Raj watched as the doctors across the room frantically worked to save the Marine’s life. Much of the Marine’s leg had been decimated by a roadside bomb. Several hours into the effort, one of the surgeons called out to Raj, “Take a look at this bullet.” He handed Raj an M-16 round he had extracted from the Iraqi and then dropped a bombshell — the Iraqi they were working on was the trigger-man for the bomb that had blown off the Marine’s leg! While the Marine was eventually sent to Walter Reed for recuperation and the Iraqi to the penal system, during their time in the hospital, both equally received the finest medical care our nation could muster. No other fighting force in history has provided such a level of care for its enemies. I shudder to think of the outcome had the roles of fighter and captor been reversed.
As I returned from combat to read nothing but bad press on the failures of our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, a dire fear started to seep under my skin, a fear that our nation will regard both wars as a total loss with no positive impact. I feared that the daily courage of soldiers like Mike Piegaro would go unappreciated through history. Winning this war is about small daily victories, and a 24-hour news cycle fueled on sensationalism will never give credit where credit is due. Say what you will about the grand national strategy of our occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq, but at the end of the day, let us not remember these wars in a simple win-loss context. Let us appreciate the sacrifices shown through benevolence — and the bravery shown through compassion on battlefields and in the operating rooms. They are not gifts deserving of thanks nearly as they are models for how great America can be.
My eyes always cringe at the sight of a homeless veteran. As I know the pains of war firsthand, it breaks my heart to see that people who have sacrificed so much for my freedom are suffering to such a degree. But it’s comforting to know that groups like the American Legion Homeless Veterans Housing Project in Jewett City, Conn., have been renovating old buildings and turning them into shelters for veterans for quite some time. They’ve raised millions of dollars from private businesses and caring citizens. The federal government has even said it would chip in the monthly rent of $875 for 15 veterans each year and provide additional funds for construction.
Unfortunately, in the recent round of intense budget cuts in Congress, this small funding for the homeless-shelter project was slashed, along with a total of $75 million in homeless-veteran benefits. As both a veteran and an American, I don’t believe that veterans’ programs should ever be isolated from budget cuts. After all, if the nation is hurting, it is we veterans who have sacrificed and will sacrifice first to protect her. But when I turn the pages of the budget to find a $7.4 million guaranteed commitment to fund a U.S. Army NASCAR sponsorship — and $20 million more from the National Guard to do the same — my blood begins to boil.
Advertising consultants may argue that the marketing statistics actually make the NASCAR project worthwhile, that it’s great “bang for the buck” in getting the Army slogan in front of millions of young auto fans salivating at the masculine thrill of modern sport. But is this really what we’ve come down to in our military-recruitment strategy? Have we boiled down the science of appealing to the core of the most dedicated young Americans to simple ad placement? To more-forgiving critics, this is just a miscalculation. To me, it is a telling exposition of how removed our policymakers are from the personal narratives of the men and women who execute their orders.
Running on my 24th month as a platoon leader — 12 of them in combat — I have had the chance to hear each of my soldiers’ life stories from before their enlistment. Some had seen tremendous success; others had seen horrific family pains I know I could never endure. When I ask my soldiers why they joined the Army, each of their answers is unique and far more sophisticated than a halftime commercial.
Michael’s dad was once in the Special Forces in Vietnam, and there was a distance between them for some time. Michael joined the Army against his father’s wishes to better understand him. Since then, their relationship has grown closer than ever.
Doug hadn’t graduated high school and was already in a bad crowd that would have probably led him to an early death or jail time. When his father died, there was no one in his family bringing home a consistent paycheck. He knew he had to make something of his life. He joined the Army.
Aaron is a college graduate, deeply interested in politics and energy independence. He chose not to do the ROTC because, in his words, adding up his enlistment bonus and the accelerated promotion points from his degree, it was more profitable for him to enlist than commission. He’s now one of the most senior and respected NCOs in the company, as well as a loving husband and father.
America’s service members are not one-dimensional people. The military’s target audience — those who have the fortitude to sign on the dotted line — are not simpletons who will be called to action by a race car. They are smart. They are thoughtful. They are not children but grown men and women, and they deserve to be treated as such.
That being said, when a smart, young high school student from Connecticut is considering enlistment, what sort of “ad placement” do homeless veterans on his neighborhood block present? What does that high school student think when he sees veterans unemployed or without health insurance?
For many homeless veterans, residual emotional and psychological effects of war are what led to their unfortunate circumstances. When we fail to support our veterans in dire conditions, we present military service as an unsustainable lifestyle to our prime recruitment audience. Those potential enlistees will deduce that they can better care for their families and themselves in other professions — and our front lines will be weaker for it. Thus, this isn’t just a veterans’-affairs issue but a national-security issue and should be regarded as one. With every soldier I’ve met, the common denominator in their decision to join the Army was a caring mentor whom they wanted to make proud. Rather than spending millions chasing stock cars to get attention, why don’t we invest in the mentors — the American veteran heroes — who can sell the honor and fulfillment of military service better than any athlete ever could?
I truly hope the American Legion Homeless Veterans Housing Project continues its venture. In the meantime, the manner in which our senior policymakers conceive the psyches of the soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who lay their lives on the line each day for this country needs a drastic shift. This oversimplification of our identities costs this nation money; it will eventually cost us military talent and perhaps even lives. If you know a soldier or veteran, don’t just thank them for their service. Take the time to understand why they joined — and why they stayed — in the military. It’s an issue we must all understand if we are to democratically influence the decisions that will protect our country. Otherwise, we’ll just be driving in circles around the same problem for years to come.