The Military Within the Military
This is the third post I’ve written in response to Lauren Kay Johnson’s Glamour Magazine essay about her struggle to adjust after Afghanistan.
For reasons which I think are obvious, Johnson’s essay had a far larger impact than she expected. And rightfully so; she unintentionally illustrated a stark contrast inside our military. This isn’t the traditional “us and them” split between combat and support troops. It’s at a deeper, more elemental level.
In my last post about Johnson I asked if she is receiving disability payments for Chronic Adjustment Disorder. Johnson’s fiance contacted me after my first post on this subject, but I’ve heard nothing since I asked this question. That silence is probably an answer in itself.
As I said previously, if Johnson is receiving disability after never being in combat, and now suffers from a loss of interest in such things as potluck dinners and karaoke, then in my opinion she should be ashamed. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect her service, and don’t wish her well. It means I don’t think anyone should accept money for not experiencing trauma, and having minor adjustment issues after a deployment.
Many veterans, especially combat arms veterans, tend to agree with me. But others vehemently disagree. Some have expressed anger at the fact that I question Johnson’s disability assessment.
Two people who identified themselves as members of the Air Force made these comments on Reddit:
“She is disabled. Just because it doesn’t affect her on a daily basis doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. If she received the rating from the VA, she deserves the pittance paycheck.”
“There are so many things wrong with this [my blog post]. Is there now a certain level of horror that has to be met before a veteran can be treated and compensated for problems stemming from their service?”
I’ve seen similar comments from other vets, and especially from civilians. Perhaps they believe all veterans’ claims should be taken at face value; if a veteran says they have PTSD, they have PTSD. To question their claims is to insult all veterans.
I had a similar experience when I attended an EMT course several years ago. By policy, if a patient said they were having an emergency, it was an emergency. Even if it was, as on one call, “My scalp really itches, so I need an ambulance ride to the hospital.” As a cop accustomed to false claims, those blatantly ridiculous 911 calls grated on me. But as an EMT student, I had to shut my mouth and accept them.
Now, as a combat vet, I’m in the same situation. I hear constant stories of veterans with PTSD, including Johnson. If I call nonsense on any of them, I’m being insensitive to suffering veterans.
Here’s the problem: unfortunately, I know what kind of “trauma” many of these veterans experienced. In Iraq my mission was escorting convoys, which could be extremely dangerous and nerve-wracking. However, I lived on Tallil, a huge air base with a big PX, coffee shop, Pizza Hut and Burger King. Some of us had wireless internet. We had a large Morale, Welfare and Recreation building with movies, video games, books, billiards and free phone calls home. And while I was there, we never took a rocket or mortar hit. Tallil at that time was, as one soldier described it, a resort.
In Afghanistan on my second deployment I marveled at the contrast between the war in the countryside and the circus atmosphere at Bagram. Bagram took regular incoming, but the place was huge. Most troops were never affected by those rockets. One day one of my soldiers and I arrived at Bagram to find a party and DJ playing music at the “Bagram Marathon” finish line. My soldier shook his head, laughed and said, “There is no war here.” Yet if a soldier who never left the wire at Tallil or Bagram claims PTSD, I’m not supposed to question it.
Actual combat definitely leaves a mark. Constant anticipation of danger can do the same thing. But never being in combat (as Johnson admits in her blog) and living on a relatively safe base somehow also produces debilitating trauma?
Johnson’s essay shows the dramatic difference in mentality between those who joined the military specifically to endure the privations of combat, and those who seem to view war as an anomaly of military service. I know many of the former. They wanted combat, they accepted the pain that comes with it, their self-worth came from their ability to function under fire. They are what I call “the military within the military”. The latter, however, are built differently. They seem to feel that if they suffered in any way – and I mean ANY way – they’re entitled to a lifetime of compensation for it.
Consider Johnson’s list of “hardships” and “effects”. Dry meat, soggy vegetables, vulgar talk, knowledge that “something bad” could happen at any time. A loss of interest in potluck dinners and karaoke. The fact that Johnson voluntarily submitted her essay to Glamour as a “triumph over adversity” story is telling. At the conclusion of her essay she says, “But I know that being unsettled is OK. I know that I’m OK.” And many of us ask, “Unsettled from what? OK after suffering what?”
I know a man whose humvee was blown in half by an IED that killed two of his friends and nearly killed him. One of my soldiers had to dig the remains of six dead friends from a destroyed vehicle. Another friend called in an air strike on a house occupied by a handful of insurgents; after the strike, he discovered to his horror that it had also been occupied by over a dozen innocent civilians.
Two of these men are still in the military and leading successful, productive lives. The third would still be a soldier if he wasn’t crippled by his injuries. Yet I also know a soldier who has never deployed, openly states she could never fire a weapon at a person and can’t even handle combat training exercises because they cause her to have panic attacks.
I sit in the middle of this divide between warriors and, for lack of a better term, others. I’ve never been in the regular military, yet have been to war twice. I’ve held two combat arms specialties, yet gained most of my combat experience as a support soldier working with line troops. I’ve been in units where “suck it up and drive on” was the norm and a unit where a first sergeant declared “If you’ve been deployed and say you don’t have PTSD, you’re a liar.”
I know both extremes. And I’ve reached some conclusions.
Our country has been defended by generations of men and many notable women who went to war knowing it would be horrible. They didn’t expect a lifetime of sympathy simply for having been there. They would have been ashamed to proclaim to the world that they were never in combat yet receive disability payments for trauma. They wouldn’t have considered the normal aggravations of military service to be cause for complaint or compensation.
The spiritual descendants of those men and women fill our infantry, armor and artillery units. Many also serve vital support roles while bristling at the lack of warrior spirit around them. In America’s past crises and our current War on Terror those true warriors have risen, willingly embraced war’s challenges and placed themselves between us and danger. If they returned unscathed they carried on normal life, more likely to brush off any lingering effects of war than to ask for financial or psychological help.
If the country respects us veterans, it’s for our selfless service. Words like honor and sacrifice are imaginary constructs for most people. For us, they’re real. We joined the military for the stated purpose of serving our nation, not being served by it.
America doesn’t owe us a lifetime of comfort for doing what we volunteered to do. Yes, we deserve fair pay and benefits for our willingness to place ourselves between our people and their enemy. Anything above that, like the GI Bill, is an extra that we should be extremely grateful for.
That doesn’t mean we’re not owed anything. We’re owed, to a degree, respect for what we’ve done. And we get that respect. We get it when we fly back from Iraq and land in Maine at 3 a.m. to find dozens of well-wishers waiting inside the terminal. We get respect when we’re granted leave from Afghanistan, fly to Dallas on a chartered military flight and receive a standing ovation as soon as we get off the plane. We get respect every time a waitress tells us, “An anonymous customer paid your bill.” We get respect every time someone shakes our hand and thanks us for our service. We get respect whenever we stand in a group of veterans and tell war stories.
If someone came home wounded, they deserve wholehearted support. If they came home truly scarred by a horrible experience, they have every right to expect care and compensation. But if they had a basically safe job in a relatively safe place and didn’t experience anything worse than being scared sometimes, all they deserve is an honorable discharge and a handshake.
If you’re truly a warrior, that honorable discharge and handshake will be enough. But if you’re out for yourself, if you don’t care how much it costs our nation as long as you get as much free money as possible, if you feel no shame twisting simple stress into incurable trauma, you’re something different. And it’s not something that can be described with words like honor and sacrifice. Those words are the sole possession of true warriors, of the military within the military.
Filed under: Afghanistan, Iraq | 23 Comments
Tags: lauren kay johnson, PTSD, veteran writers