2007

7 November 2007: Honoring All Vets

We should honor all vets

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month—so it was decided that would be the proper moment to end the War to End All Wars, The Great War, or, as it is more commonly known as, World War I.

Since then, November 11 has come to serve as the date on which we honor veterans, the vast majority deserving of deepest respect, understanding there are a few who deserve contempt and condemnation, such as Army Sgt. Timothy J. McVeigh, a Christian-fascist American terrorist who murdered 168 fellow countrymen.

Sadly though, there are veterans who are vilified despite noble and patriotic service. Rush Limbaugh, who can speak as authentically and authoritatively about real soldiers as can Dick Cheney, has labeled those who have served with honor in Iraq and Afghanistan and spoken out about the horrors of our actions in those troubled lands because of what they witnessed “phony soldiers.”

Then, there are veterans who from a certain perspective are less than “real men” or “real Americans” and would not likely be invited to be the marshal in a VFW parade. Staff Sgt. Eric Alva was the first to be wounded in the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, losing a leg to a mine explosion. Alva outted himself as a gay man only after his service, despite his buddies being aware of his orientation. That saved him from being discharged under the military’s inane, unjust, and hateful “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

Marine Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez was, from Republican presidential aspirant Rep. Tom Tancredo’s point of view, a criminal. A 14-year-old Guatemalan orphan, he illegally entered the U.S. in 1995. In 2003, he was the first to die in the Invasion of Iraq. Posthumously, he was awarded his American citizenship. The message: If you die protecting people who would have kicked you out had you lived, you’ll be honored.

A nephew, a former Marine, is quite the conservative. In a recent exchange precipitated by a poem he had forwarded about a Marine before the Throne of God, he voiced his frustration over soldiers today being “vilified.” My reply:

“As for God, Marines, et al, I honor what you believe. I disagree with your belief that the soldier is being ‘vilified.’ In fact, I see them as more honored today, as more Americans are coming to understand, they are not the creators of the policy, just the ‘grunts’ doing it. It’s like corporatists vilifying the American worker, when it is the mess the corporations have brought about that has got our b—s and t–s in the wringer.

“What I see may be more of a danger is the ‘cult of the soldier.’ There’s a fine line between honoring with respect and falling down in adulation before a man in uniform. That’s the basis of militarism, and pre-WW II Japan is our model there. Our soldiers and Marines are not samurai; they’re simply men and women who for the most part, as there will always be Rambo & Timothy McVeigh types, are doing the best they can in, oftentimes, the worst possible environment–read, Iraq.”

Re-reading that passage I would qualify it a bit to read, “Most soldiers are more honored today.” Certainly gay and lesbian soldiers are not. In addition, the plight of many veterans does not speak well of our national conscience.

Americans love men in uniform, whether military, police or fireman, or athletic. Even “real men” have men crushes about them—just listen to rightwing talkers or watch ESPN. And therein lies the problem: the image of the noble veteran. He (not she) is preferably white, might be able to squeeze into his uniform, is straight and married, and bears his physical and mental scars with uncomplaining dignity. In short, he’s to be “Johnny marching home.”

The reality is, of course, not the sanitized version. Our vets are men and women; they are black, white, Native American, Hispanic, and more; they are native-born and immigrant, some even “illegal”; they are straight, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and trans-gendered; they are Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, Wiccan, atheist, and more; they are often wounded, physically and psychologically, and carry their trauma until, all too often, an untimely death; they are at first honored and then neglected by a society more focused on their immediate heroics, much like our football players, than on their “after lives.”

Over the years, organizations that advocate for vets who do not fit the stereotypical profile have grown. Among them are the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (gay and lesbian issues), Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and Veterans for Peace. Each, of course, can be accessed via their websites.

Whenever you thank a vet—and hopefully that happens more frequently than on November 11—thank them all as I am here, for our real soldiers and veterans, like the rest of America, come from all races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, and political perspectives who put it all on the line, unlike fat-cat, armchair-chickenhawk, perhaps closeted, phony soldier cheerleaders.

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