Veterans don’t need pity
This essay was published March 24th 2013 by the Austin American Statesman.
Veteran: Reports of recruitment tricks and trauma misleading
By Chris Hernandez
Two years ago I attended a presentation by a woman who advocates “selective conscientious objector” status. In other words, she believes service members should be able to say, “I’ll go to war in Afghanistan because it’s moral, but I won’t go to Iraq because it’s immoral.”
The woman, a former college professor, gave an interesting speech. She showed a good grasp of the difficulties we faced in Iraq, and gave solid reasons why troops could morally object to a specific war. I had initially been against her proposal, but once she explained it I wasn’t opposed.
Then the question-and-answer session began. An audience member asked, “Why should any of these troops be conscientious objectors? They all volunteered. The draft ended decades ago.”
The woman’s answer was like nails on chalkboard. “Well, there still is a draft. There’s the poverty draft, where the military sends poor kids to war. And the stop-loss draft. And there’s also,” she said, just before plunging a knife directly into my gut, “the National Guard draft. Those people are supposed to be helping out during hurricanes and tornadoes, they don’t join the military to go to war.”
At that point my wife had to calm me down. I’m a 17-year National Guard soldier and served six years in the Marine Corps Reserve before that. I voluntarily went to Iraq in 2005 and volunteered for Afghanistan in 2008. I went to war, twice, with many thousands of National Guardsmen and never heard even one say, “We’re not supposed to go to war.”
I met her outside and argued against her depiction of our service as a draft. It’s not only poor kids in the military, and the possibility of being stop-lossed — having one’s term of service involuntarily extended — is spelled out in the contract when we join. Calling anyone’s service today a “draft” is at best ignorance, at worst an outright lie.
Specifically though, I wanted to argue with her about the alleged National Guard draft. We in the Guard are volunteers just like all other soldiers. And the Guard has almost all the backup combat arms units, which aren’t very effective at fighting natural disasters. No matter how many rounds they fire at a hurricane, tanks and artillery can’t stop it.
The woman insisted that people who join the Guard don’t want to go to war. Several other audience members joined in on her side. Eventually I found myself in a circle of about eight people, none of whom had ever served in the Guard (only one said he had served in the military, but claimed to have been a Navy SEAL, so take that for what it’s worth). All of them insisted to me, the only National Guard war veteran among them, that people join the Guard so they won’t go to war. And gosh darn it, didn’t I realize they were trying to help me, trying to make sure I didn’t get sent to war again?
In the years since that depressing, frustrating conversation, I’ve heard many comments from people who seem to have similar thoughts about us. We’re poor minorities who joined the military because we had no other options. We couldn’t find a job in this economy. The Army tricked us into going to Iraq. We didn’t want to be there.
Last year, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” was published. This novel about soldiers serving in Iraq, written by someone who never served in the military, became an award-winning best-seller. All the soldiers in the book — every one — come from tragic backgrounds. The author even uses the phrase “bottom third percentile” to describe them.
Recent media stories about veterans overwhelmingly focus on two things: post-traumatic stress syndrome and suicides. Both are serious problems and legitimate concerns. But the constant stories about those two subjects completely overshadow stories about successful veterans, and hide the fact that the vast majority of us aren’t suffering any ill effects from our wartime service. The public might be forgiven for thinking we’re all traumatized to the point of suicide by the wars. Newspapers and television constantly remind them that we’re damaged, broken, desperate for any way to stop the suffering. We’re victims, after all.
A few months ago filmmaker Michael Moore wrote, “I understand why so many (troops) enlisted after 9/11. Sadly, many of them were then trapped and sent off to invade Iraq. I felt for all of them. I understood those who joined because of a lousy economy.”
Us poor, pitiful saps. We mass of desperate, victimized children, unable to do anything worthwhile with our lives, were trapped by the military and sent to war against our will. Oh, the tragedy.
Of all the misconceptions surrounding the Iraq War, none is more frustrating to me than the “soldiers are victims” myth. It’s a lie I want to dispel, right now. The American public should make no mistake about this: We chose this fight. We chose this war. We’re responsible for putting ourselves there.
Some people will undoubtedly disagree with this. Someone will bring up their friend who joined the military just for college money, or a cousin who only wanted to be a mechanic, or someone who was “tricked” by their recruiter and never expected to go to war. Simply put, those stories mean nothing. We joined the military as free men and women. We wore camouflage and helmets in training. We fired rifles and machine guns. We threw grenades. We trained with bayonets. We knew we would do those things when we joined. We didn’t suddenly discover, to our horror, that we had joined a warfighting organization. Volunteering for an organization dedicated to fighting wars, and then complaining about being sent to war, is either moronic or cowardly or both. Those opinions are worthless to me.
My true feeling about the wars, which I don’t always express, is this: I can’t imagine having missed them. My life would have been diminished without them. The IED close calls, bullets that almost hit, supercharged radio calls of troops in a firefight, sudden orange flashes and shocks of adrenaline that meant an explosion had missed us, mind-crushing responsibility for the lives of others, all these things enriched my life.
When I tell people an Iraq or Afghanistan war story, the reaction I usually get is, “It must have been horrible to experience that.” Yes, sometimes it was. But missing those experiences would have been worse. Never leaving the wire with a group of men who would rather die than let each other down would have been worse. Never feeling a survivor’s adrenaline rush would have been worse. Never defending my values and country with my life would have been worse. I’m proud I did those things. I’m happy I was in the wars. Sometimes I take in the complicated stresses of marriage, children, finances and work, and long for the simple stress of avoiding bullets. Non-veterans probably won’t appreciate the beautiful purity of having life’s myriad worries reduced to just three: trying to kill the enemy, trying not to get killed, and trying to defend your brothers.
The public is constantly reminded of how much we veterans are suffering for our service. I’m here to remind the public of a counterpoint. We benefited from our service, and not just financially. We learned important lessons about the country, the world, our fellow soldiers, and most importantly, ourselves. We know what we’re capable of. We know some things are worth risking your life to defend, and we backed our words with action.
Nobody needs to pity us for that.
Note added 3/28/13: In the essay published by the Statesman there were several minor mistakes that I missed when I submitted it. When I reposted it here I first decided to leave all the mistakes in, but they’ve been bothering me so much I had to correct them. I figured the Statesman would have edited them out, but was surprised to see they left my essay exactly as screwed up as I wrote it. Lesson learned, if any more newspapers want to print my stuff I need to make sure and get it edited myself.
Filed under: Afghanistan, Iraq, Writing | 54 Comments
Tags: Afghanistan, iraq, PTSD, veterans