- Jonathan Raab: Veterans Day more about survival than victory for many of today's troops
- He says returning troops face long recovery even as budget woes raise threat of benefit cuts
- He says military service is much more taxing and traumatic than a civilian's work
- Raab: Americans should remember veterans' sacrifices after decade of war
This Veterans Day, like the nine that preceded it, does not come at a time of peace. We are no longer saying thanks to veterans of wars past such as our grandfathers, uncles or those guys who fly black POW/MIA flags twice a year. Now we are thanking our children, our friends from high school and our younger cousins.
Every day, someone new is introduced to the hardships of wartime military service or the horrors of combat.
These are wars with no clean victories. There are no sailors in New York waiting to grab a passing dame to celebrate victory with a kiss. In the way that people offer their thanks, there is an echo of guilt -- just an echo -- of our country's mistreatment of its Vietnam veterans, and that only a select few have borne this generation's burden of war. That awkwardness with which the thanks is delivered, coupled with some veterans' anxieties about what they have seen or done, can make Veterans Day seem like a show of empty patriotism -- or worse, a slim bandage slapped over a gaping wound of indifference, pity or guilt.
Our towns and cities throw parades on this day, often out of tradition and in an attempt to demonstrate anything but apathy toward their war fighters. Unlike parades past -- parades not held during wartime -- these gatherings do not celebrate victory. They directly celebrate service while indirectly celebrating survival.
Even that is a messy, ongoing process. A returning veteran stepping off a plane onto U.S. soil is not evidence that the veteran survived the war -- about 20% of all suicides in the United States are committed by veterans. For some returnees, simply making it through another day is their new objective. Life back home can seem remote, confusing or even pointless.
Now there is some discussion of restructuring the military pension system and raising the cost of health insurance for future service members to cut costs. That our country needs to get its fiscal house in order is not in question; what should be examined is the tendency of our government to view military service as something comparable to private-sector work. This perspective, when combined with a cynical political understanding that the military will accept any burden, puts additional strain upon our overtaxed fighting force.
Consider how our civilian population's experiences on this Veterans Day will contrast sharply with that of the military:
In the U.S., a man will wake up, make breakfast, pack his briefcase and walk to his car worrying about traffic jams. In Afghanistan, an infantryman will wake up, slug down the same food he has been eating for months, check his equipment and climb into his armored vehicle worrying about the road disintegrating beneath him.
In the U.S., a hardworking mother of three will cycle her children through the shower, make breakfast and send them off to school before she heads to work. In Iraq, a hardworking military police platoon leader will cycle her 20 soldiers through personal hygiene and the chow hall, and lead the convoy briefing before they go on patrol.
In the U.S., a man will work a part-time job in a warehouse, running a forklift and hauling merchandise throughout the night, impatient to reach home. At Bagram Air Field, a soldier waiting for his leave flight back to the States will draw extra duty. His detail will move dead bodies -- dozens of them -- throughout the night, storing them carefully inside of a transport plane. He will be impatient to be done with the solemn yet gruesome task, but when he is finished, he will have to be ordered to take leave.
With the images of the dead fresh in his mind, he will be disoriented and not even want to go home anymore. He won't be sure where to go, for that matter.
In the U.S., politicians propose cutting military pensions and health benefits. Overseas, veterans see the potential reduction of military benefits and conclude that their service and their sacrifices -- over many years and multiple deployments -- are not a priority to the very politicians (of both major parties) that sent them to war.
Like the casualty numbers in Afghanistan, the number of combat veterans keeps rising. Let this Veterans Day -- like the decade of Veterans Days before it -- be an opportunity to hear the stories of our warriors, to ask them honest and respectful questions without fearing them or projecting preconceived notions onto them.
Let it be a day where we can see the falsehood in the argument that government cuts should start with those who have already given up so much. Let this holiday be spent celebrating the freedom to live our lives safely and without fear of terrorism or enemy attack.
So go to work, send your kids to school, say goodbye for the day to loved ones -- while others ruck up for another mission. And remember: While the wars will not last forever, many are still in the fight and could use more than a few words of thanks when they come home.
And over here, some are still, in their minds and in their wounds, over there.