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There’s never been more appreciation from the general American public for the U.S. military. But an increasing number of us think that’s not always a great thing.
After 9/11, support for the military skyrocketed. Budweiser was putting out commercials praising servicemen and women. More and more sports teams were taking time out to honor veterans. As a young soldier, whenever I’d walk around in uniform after 9/11, someone would thank me for my service. The support over the last decade-and-a-half has been awesome. But like a growing number of vets, I think it’s started to be counterproductive for some of us. It’s setting us too far apart. Making us too special.
Sebastian Junger might be the one civilian most qualified to speak for veterans. He co-directed the movie Restrepo, widely regarded by insiders as the most important military documentary of our time. That movie, and the book that accompanied the doc, simply titled “War,” gave civilians a look at life in the military that was more honest than most. Junger has spent over a decade getting to know soldiers on an intimate level like almost no other civilian, and he’s proven that he has a handle on what makes them tick.
With all that time spent with military personnel, you’d think he’d be the military’s biggest cheerleader right? Wrong. In an interview with the military website Task and Purpose, Junger talks about the danger of “over-valorization.” He says, “My theory is that in our valorizing of them–which is well-intentioned and, to a great degree, merited–that after a certain point in time, it will actually become destructive to them, because we’re basically saying, ‘You’re a special class of citizens and we’re not expecting that you contribute to society for the rest of your lives.’ That’s not in the best interest of their psychological health.”
What Junger’s getting at is something that educators and parents have known for years–the self-fulfilling prophecy. For the most part, if you tell a young girl she’s dumb enough times, she’s going to grow up dumb. If you call a kid a paint chewer enough times, he’s going to grow up to chew paint, and probably root for Alabama. And if you tell a veteran he’s special enough times, he’s going to believe it.
At face value, this seems like a great thing. But it can backfire at least two ways. First is for the veteran themselves, in a form that can be terribly destructive. Junger touches on this in the Task and Purpose interview, talking about the rise of PTSD as the defining characteristic of the U.S. soldier. Too many of our soldiers are being told that they’re going to be a wreck when they get home from deployments. So when they get home, they’re a wreck. Then they’re told by the VA that they’re going to get compensated for the rest of their lives because of all the horrible damage that’s been done to them. So they end up on pills for the rest of their lives.
Is every PTSD sufferer the casualty of the self-fulfilling prophecy? Of course not. But some are. And while Junger surely isn’t allowed to say this because he’s not a true insider, I can: some of them aren’t suffering from PTSD at all, and are just gaming the system. In fact, I think as veterans, we’re partly to blame for the VA crisis. At the very least, more of us are getting diagnosed with “special” infirmities than should be. We’ve gotten convinced that we deserve special treatment. So we’re chasing it.
There’s another way the over-valorization of soldiers backfires, though it’s a little more subtle. Imagine a young, impressionable boy. Little Tommy is 8-ish and lives next to a guy named Mr. Johnson. His mom sees old man Johnson out in his yard one day and tells the kid, “Go help Mr. Johnson rake his leaves.” That kid is going to get the idea that Mr. Johnson needs some help. If he has to do it the next week, and the week after that, eventually that kid is going to start feeling sorry for Mr. Johnson.
Now imagine mom and little Tommy see a couple soldiers in uniform in Cracker Barrel. She tells little Tommy that they’re going to buy the soldiers’ lunch. What impression does little Johnny get? He definitely gets the idea that the soldiers are special. But does he also get the idea that the soldiers need their help in the same way old man Johnson needs their help? At some level, yes.
Because of this aspect of over-valorization, the public’s perception of the quality of life of the average military serviceman or servicewoman has gone way down since 9/11. Too many commercials talk about how crappy our lives are, and because of that, how worthy of respect we are. This is remarkably close to pity on the emotional scale.
Every Nashville Predators’ game, during a TV timeout, they have the whole arena clap while they trot out a veteran in uniform. Everyone in the arena is being sent the message, “This person is special.” And they probably are! Just, not any moreso than everyone else in the arena. He’s just a regular dude who’s lucky to get free tickets and is embarrassed to be on the big screen with all the cameras on him.
That sounds wrong to say, but it’s only because it goes against what you’ve been told. Most of us vets know the truth, though. You can test this out, in fact. The next veteran you see, go up to them and tell them they’re a hero. Unless they’re an entire bag of actual douche, they’ll tell you the truth. They’re not. I don’t deserve extra credit in the human race because I signed up to serve. And I certainly don’t deserve your pity. You guys can just keep paying your taxes and sending the checks, and I’ll keep serving, and we’ll call it even. Sure, some of us have given more than others. But if you’re going to give your life or limb for something, defending your country or your community isn’t the worst.
So this Memorial Day, don’t thank a vet for their service. Instead, thank their families. Military kids were born into the life–they didn’t choose it. And there are families that have given more than they should have. I know one of those families, and if you’d like, you can thank them today for their tremendous sacrifice by sending a check made out to the CPT Marcus R. Alford Sr. Memorial Scholarship Fund to Regions Bank-Village Green Branch, 1144 Nashville Pike, Gallatin, TN or calling 615.452.5063.
Of all of the people on Twitter, I am by far one of them.