I took the dogs for a run in the woods early in the day. It’s still cool in the early morning, and the area was deserted. On the way home, I stopped for a cup of coffee. On my way out of the Starbuck’s, I ran into an acquaintance. We chatted for a moment, and as we parted, she said “Thank you for your service, Di!”
I smiled and waved as I walked away. It happens a lot on the “Patriotic Holidays” — Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, and Independence Day. I neither hide nor advertise my status as a veteran, and it doesn’t come up often. But on these three days of the year, they remember.
I appreciate the kind thought, though I know not all of my veteran brothers and sisters feel the same. On more than one occasion, I have witnessed a mystified civilian staring after one of us, clearly unable to comprehend why the veteran they have thanked didn’t acknowledge their generosity.
I mean, you’d think we’d be grateful for the recognition, right?
We join for many reasons, from patriotism and gratitude for the benefits we have experienced from being born in this nation, to desperation and need (the military is a path out of poverty for many enlisted service members. Leadership is for the rich — for the most part, it takes a university degree to enter the service as an officer).
Serving is more than just “taking on a job” or even a lifestyle. To serve is to enter into a form of indentured servitude. The military is obligated to care for you — well, to feed and house you, at any rate. In return, we surrender our civil rights, personal and bodily autonomy, many of our general rights as citizens, and the right to make basic decisions for ourselves and our families.
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.
We swear our loyalty to the Constitution, not the government. Indeed, the wording of the oath makes it clear that if the government is in conflict with the constitution, our obligation is to support and defend the principles over the people in power. We swear obedience to the Commander in Chief — but the UCMJ is explicit that we are responsible for lawful orders, and for disregarding unlawful ones even if they come from the top.
The Constitution is what we swear to serve. The funny thing is, when we serve, we have the fewest benefits from that document. Our first amendment rights to free expression are curtailed under UCMJ. From public speech to the clothes we wear, command authority overrides individual liberties. We surrender not only our own 4th amendment rights but those of our families as well — command has the right to enter and inspect our private residences.
But it’s OK — because by giving those things away for a while, we help to ensure them for millions of people. That’s what makes it worth it. Since we can’t exercise many of our rights as citizens, we are dependent on our countrymen to exercise oversight over the government that controls our lives. It can be discouraging to see how our countrymen value our service:
- It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that we were assured of the ability to even vote if we were assigned overseas. Meanwhile, back home, more than half of Americans can’t be bothered to turn up for a Presidential election. (We’re 26th out of 32 leading developed nations for voter turnout.)
- In 2012, The Invisible War was an Oscar contender for the stark portrayal of how the military handles rape and sexual assault. The next year, Justice Denied gave us a closer look into the impact on male victims, who make up more than half of the 20K+ rape victims in the military each year. The peoples’ representatives in Congress voted down the Military Justice Improvement Act — a vote split straight along party lines.
- Our legislators prioritized the interest of the corporation that owns them (and make no mistake, the GOP and DNC are corporations) over the physical and mental well-being of the men and women who serve. Our civilian population followed up by electing a probable serial rapist and gleeful sexual assaulter as our Commander-in-Chief.
- #22ADay. Most of us know at least one. The fact that most of you don’t even know what the hashtag refers to just adds insult to injury.
- We are constantly getting sold out for profit. It’s not just the famous cases of corruption and war profiteering. It’s having our families forced to live in unhealthy conditions because military housing was sold to a private contractor that is permitted to operate as a slumlord. It’s retirees who served for 20 or even 30 years, on the promise that when they retired they would have the benefit of military medical care for life (a double necessity since so much of the damage caused by our service is ignored by the VA) — only to have the deal changed long after their retirement, and find themselves being charged for an insurance program, or left to their own devices. Meanwhile, 23,000 active duty service members and 1.4 million veterans rely on welfare to survive.
- 54% of federal discretionary spending is for defense (mostly for defense contractors, of course, not the 1.3 million service members), but only 6% is spent on the 20.4 million veterans (for the budget overall, that’s 17% for defense, and 4% for veterans). Corporations make billions each year in military sales while veterans, desperate to have their needs met by an overburdened and sometimes callous VA medical system, finally give up and kill themselves in the parking lot of the medical center that can’t be bothered with them, or die waiting to gain access to that system (the process for reviewing and authorizing service-connected health issues is commonly referred to as “deny til they die”).
- Our troops are serving unprecedented numbers of combat tours in the longest wars of U. S. history. Many of us privately disagree with the idea that anything we are doing in Iraq is somehow securing liberty for Americans or Iraqis. But we agreed to follow lawful orders, and trust that our government will not throw away our lives for cheap causes. When the President orders it, the Congress approves it, and the citizens do nothing to override it, our duty is to carry it out. We can be imprisoned — or, under some circumstances, executed — for refusing to do so. And civilians who did nothing to change the orders we receive will punish us for carrying out those orders.
- When we leave the military and enter the workplace, we are treated to civilians’ stereotypes. Our co-workers are quick to let us know how much they “know” about the military, painting us as mindless drones incapable of independent thought, or as bloodthirsty lunatics who delight in carnage. Oh, but, of course, you’re different. When an encounter between law enforcement and a mentally ill person ends in a death, those same colleagues will join us in our sorrow and outrage. Unless that dead person was a veteran with PTSD. Then, they’re sorry that the poor person had to die — but they’ve seen Deer Hunter and Hurt Locker and they know that people with PTSD are too crazy and too dangerous and sometimes there just isn’t any choice. Like dogs, the violent ones just have to be put down sometimes, I guess. Even the media coverage often presents PTSD as an explanation or justification for the death.
I could go on; the list is long enough for a small book. But the point is — these things are true. Have been true. Continue to be true. Are likely to be true and continue without interruption.
While they remain true, the words “thank you” sound very hollow.
If you are grateful for our service — we don’t need to hear it nearly as much as we need to see it. The best thanks you can offer is your active, thoughtful participation in the oversight of our government. Service members pay a high price to defend the possibilities of our nation. Citizens have an obligation to balance the freedoms and liberties they receive with active supervision of its realities.
If politicians vote, with impunity, to use government dollars to benefit corporations while service members rely on food stamps to eat, they do so because our citizens allow it. If corporate political parties subvert the free exercise of the vote by gerrymandering districts to prevent communities of color from effectively participating in the electoral process, they do so because our citizens allow it.
We don’t place ourselves in harm’s way so that you will be grateful enough to us to say thank you. We do it in the hope that you will be grateful enough for those liberties to help us ensure they exist for others.
I set my items on the conveyor belt and wait as a gentleman with a name tag reading “Larry” moves with brisk precision, checking out the customer ahead of me. The young man in front of me is wearing digital camouflage, adorned with Navy insignia. I flip him some genial crap about just how well green camo is going to help a Squid on a gray ship in the blue water, and he laughs.
His purchases are split into two bundles; Larry is ringing up the first set, which consists mostly of baby food. I ask how old the baby is, and the young sailor tells me it is an infant, and he has just found out he has another on the way — the last, he assures me with a smile. His second bundle has two dresses and a pair of summer shoes — maternity clothes for his wife to wear during the hot summer weather. I realize that he has separated these items because they can’t be purchased with his benefits card.
Larry comments periodically, affirming that the items are being properly registered; apparently, the new electronic system is finicky, and sometimes rejects certain brands or sizes. He is diligently making sure that kid doesn’t get surprised by a refused item. From behind the sailor’s shoulder, I catch Larry’s eye, and exchange some hand signals and mouthed words. He smiles and nods back at me when the kid is looking away.
His first order completed, the young man turns to place his paid-for items in his basket. While he is turned away, Larry rings up the clothing, then starts on my order. When the kid turns back, I am already preparing to pay. Larry asks him to be patient for just a moment, inferring that he’s ringing me up and letting me move along, since I have waited patiently through the kid’s first checkout.
I thank Larry with a smile, and thank the kid for waiting. As I walk away, Larry slowly bags the shoes and dresses. He makes sure I am nearly to the door before explaining to the kid that his wife’s clothes have already been paid for. By the time he finishes speaking, I am out the door and out of sight.
Thank you for your service, Kid.
This article was originally published at medium.com