Editor’s Note: Patrick Mondaca is an adjunct instructor at John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York. In 2003 he served in Baghdad, Iraq, as a sergeant with the Connecticut Army National Guard’s 143rd Military Police Company. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail and more. The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“If the Democrats do not give us the votes to secure our Country, the Military will build the remaining sections of the Wall. They know how important it is!” President Donald Trump tweeted recently.
Let the military fix it – that’s the all-purpose solution, right? Wars to fight? Borders to defend? Americans to win over ahead of midterm elections? Trump’s got a panacea.
The President seems to love the troops, unless, of course, it’s raining or there’s a draft and he is required to serve. In both of those cases, well, the President was unwilling to inconvenience himself for the military. He is, quite literally, a fair-weather friend, engaging with the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our nation only when it benefits him.
Until Wednesday, Trump had yet to visit the troops in a combat zone out of concern for “personal safety and legitimizing unpopular wars.” It was reported Wednesday, however, that he stopped in Iraq for a post-Christmas visit and photo op with service members, during which he called the troops “warriors” and “patriots” who are getting “billions and billions of dollars of new equipment that (Trump) approved over the last two years.”
This may appear on the surface to be a genuine effort to honor the military, but those who serve, as well as the rest of us, should not be fooled by the President’s empty actions. Nor will we be.
In fact, in the aftermath of his visit, the President has been called out for making the false claim that he had given the troops their first pay raise in over a decade. No one deserves to be lied to by the President, but for the commander in chief to make false statements to the faces of those who defend the nation shows a disappointing level of disrespect.
When I served in Baghdad in 2003 with the US Army, my fellow soldiers and I were nonplussed listening to then-President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. I’m sure that many among the troops who trotted out for Trump’s visit felt similarly. As we knew then and now, Bush’s mission in Iraq was not quite accomplished, making his words seem hollow. And as our military today under Trump’s leadership can also ascertain, dropping in for a few photos and some questionably sincere words does not a worthy commander in chief make.
In Flanders at the Battle of Boxtel in 1794, a mortally wounded Private Tommy Atkins told his superior officer as he lay dying in the mud, “It’s all right, sir, all in a day’s work.”
Rudyard Kipling immortalized the young soldier in his poem “Tommy,” which says, in part:
“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out the brute!’
But it’s ‘Saviour of ‘is country’ when the guns begin to shoot
An’ it’s Tommy this an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please
An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool – you bet that Tommy sees.”
Kipling’s poem tells the stark truth of how many Americans feel about those who wear the uniform of the soldier, whether they choose to or not. We love them when we need them – when we are threatened, when we are afraid, when we want them to potentially sacrifice life and limb for our country. But how quickly in peacetime we forget the magnitude of that sacrifice.
Our own “Tommies” patrol throughout the world to this day, in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria and Niger. They are stationed throughout our nation in transit hubs like Penn Station and John F. Kennedy International Airport. And now they are bivouacked uselessly on our southern border, awaiting their orders to pack it up and come home. They hover bored and watchful. Later they may die terribly and ungallantly in wretched places where the average American – and the President – would not dare to go. And we probably won’t think about them again until we see notice of their death scroll briefly across the news ticker.
But Tommy isn’t likely paying much attention to the President’s bloviating or his fair-weather allegiances. He won’t have been listening to the President’s lip service about “tremendous courage” during the Thanksgiving video conference from his Mar-a-Lago luxury resort last month with military members in Afghanistan.
Instead, active Tommies are putting in a hard day’s work. And retired Tommies are standing in line at the Veterans Affairs hospital to get prescriptions for depression, anxiety and sleep disorders.
Tommy is putting on his dress uniform and taking his own life with a rifle after dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ incompetence. He is one of the 20 veterans who kill themselves daily in this country, according to a 2018 Department of Veterans Affairs news release.
Yes, Tommy volunteered for his or her military service, but he or she volunteered for the good of the country and not for the President’s personal agenda.
Get our free weekly newsletter
The lives of our service members are not pawns to be moved about a political chessboard. Our soldiers and sailors and Marines and airmen are not toys to be played with by a petulant, entitled child who could never imagine serving. And the President’s “very, very” special words for the military are mere empty expressions of the hypocrisy of the elite who don’t themselves defend our nation.
And when we thank our own Tommies for their service – when they come home from those combat theaters and the Mexican border – I expect that they will tell us the same thing that young Tommy said in that muddy field to the Duke of Wellington so many years ago. It was “all in a day’s work.”
And for that we should value them.