11 November 2008

Veterans Day

Just 6.1 of the 23.6 million veterans in the United States served in peace time. About half of U.S. veterans served because they were drafted.

Veterans Day originated as “Armistice Day” on Nov. 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the end of World War I. Congress passed a resolution in 1926 for an annual observance, and Nov. 11 became a national holiday beginning in 1938. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation in 1954 to change the name to Veterans Day as a way to honor those who served in all American wars.

Around the same time, Eisenhower added "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, and put "In God We Trust" on currency, in an effort to juxtapose the United States against the Soviets. A large share of the nation's Ten Commandments monuments when up at that time. It was also a time marked by loyalty oaths, black listing in Hollywood, and the McCarthyistic Red Scares. Indiana Jones petulantly tells a Russian psychic operations officer who has him in custody, "I Like Ike," as he starts to make his escape in the latest movie incarnation of the character.

The dilution of Veteran's Day from the more specific Armistice Day, has kept the holiday relevant, at a time when veterans with visible and invisible scars return from the Iraq and Afghan wars return home, but at the cost diluting its symbolic impact. For most of us, Veteran's Day is just another banker's holiday, a sort of Memorial Day lite, without the beer and BBQ.

When I lived in New Zealand, and when I visited Europe, I was stunned by how intense national memories of the slaughters of World War I are, even today, when almost all World War I veterans who returned have died natural deaths. In New Zealand, Armistice Day was nicknamed "Poppy Day" in recognition of the poppy filled fields where so many of their men died in huge, senseless set piece battles whose injustices fueled acid bath of class resentment that powered industrial era Democratization in those countries. While the U.S. bore serious casualties in World War I and World War II, Europe and Japan suffered far more than we did. We entered both wars late and spent the bulk of our involvement winning rather than facing relentless defeats.

Unfortunately, the volunteer force of today, like our society, has increasingly become divided by class, just as it was up until World War I all the world over. Our enlisted ranks are filled with young men and women who are not college bound, or can't afford to go to college without the G.I. Bill. Our officer corps is full of young men and women who have graduated from college and sometimes law or medical school. A surprisingly large share of military officers who make careers of their service, rather than mustering out after a four or five year tour, have attended the nation's military academies. Few enlisted soldiers managed to make it to officer candidate school and rise to officer status without college. Experienced sergeants continue to quietly lead the green junior officers who outrank them. The larger country, where class divides are as great as they have been since Hoover was President, mirrors this trend. Equally important, very few members of the upper middle class serve at all.

The democratizing impact of the draft on the military is now long gone. One wonders if the sense of equality and common cause developed by draftees wasn't an important reason that our economy remained fairly democratic, distributionally, when those veterans returend to civilian life. Has an end to military service, like the end of public voting that occurred and produced dramatically reduced voter turnout in the Progressive era, undermined our sense of community? Even today, older voters often go to the polls together, and share coffee and talk afterwards, making a morning of it on election day. For younger voters it is all business -- sitting around the kitchen table in order to get the ballot out as one more bit of work to produce.

While soldiers are often stereotyped as stupid brutes, low on empathy and big on mindlessly following orders, success in war requires you to be reality based and understand your surroundings. In an era of "low intensity warfare" cultural sensitivity is critical to military success. The exposure to the rest of the world that soldiers experience, even if they don't serve in wartime, changes them and broadens their horizons.

Every professor I've ever met who is old enough to have done so cherished the experience he had teaching soldiers who returned to college on the G.I. Bill after World War II and Korea, because they had a maturity, seriousness, focus, and powerful desire to learn that typical fresh out of high school undergraduates often lack.

We have one of the smallest active duty militaries that we've had since before World War II. Yet, we are fighting two regional wars and deployed many other places across the globe. A small portion of us are doing yeoman's work, while the rest of us live life as usual, without so much as a tax increase to pay for the war, or any kind of sacrifice at all. Thank you to all of you who are doing more than your fair share. The rightness or wrongness of the wars fought aren't your business. That is the stuff of politicians. You're simply doing your duty to your country, in spades.


Anonymous said...

On the 11th Day of the 11th month each year, Americans come together to honor those in uniform, the ones who sacrificed for our nation, on Veterans Day. As a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan, War on Terror, I urge everyone to take this day to not just thank a veteran, but to talk with veterans. Learn about how our experiences have shaped our lives and what issues we face as we make our transitions back to civilian life. I would like to explain my side of the story, my own experience.

When I joined the military I was a young, confused kid, who did not know much about life, due to being sheltered for most of my life by my over protective parents. I did not know much about the war, just that I was enraged at the hatred those terrorists had for all Americans and me. I wanted to help my country, to protect it at all cost, even giving up my life to do so. It may sound funny but when I initially tried to enlist in the military, I was to be a military post-man, but the job had already been taken. Since I am color-blind, I wasn’t able to have a range of opportunities in the military. My placement was therefore in Mortuary Affairs Specialist. I felt that I grew up quicker in my years in service than most people do in their whole lifetime.

I was nineteen years old on February 8th, 2002. It was kind of cold for Phoenix as I reached the Airport headed to Fort Jackson, in South Carolina for basic training. Upon reaching Fort Jackson, referred by some in the service as relaxant Jackson, I found that the life I had chosen would not be as easy as I thought. Those first couple of days I got a hair cut, issued uniforms, and learned the waiting line for training was long. During this time, since 9/11, there was a mass influx of new recruits; the Army had problems finding them units to train in. For me I was lucky kind of, since I had a school date that did not come around very often, they tried to offer me another job, but I turn them down, I was shipped from Fort Jackson, then to Fort Lenderwood Missionary. The Ozark Mountains are cold and during winter, it was unbearable. It was an extreme change for me because I was mostly familiar with the hot weather in Phoenix, AZ. Exercising and running in extreme weather with being out shape was horrible. There was no special treatment for anyone but the drill sergeants made me work twice as hard. The treatment I received was something similar to a movie, where the fat kid got picked on and abused, but it was some thing I needed in order to become who I need to be. Despite this, I worked hard, did everything I was ordered to do, and eventually I graduated from boot camp with a new physique. During graduation, my fellow recruits honored me with “The Most Changed Person” reward, the Order of the Dragoon.

I was off to my next challenge, training for my MOS. When I reached Fort Lee, Virginia, I missed my start date and had to wait for the next one. This meant that I couldn’t get a pass to go anywhere; I had to just sit at the barracks, clean the floors, and do KP duty. After awhile this routine got incommodious. I was so happy on Memorial Day 2002, because the next day I was scheduled to start school. Then all of a sudden, I had horrible stomach pains, and could not figure what it was. So I was sent me off to the ER, the doctors initially diagnosed appendix problems. The one-hour surgery was then scheduled immediately, however it took five hours to complete. Apparently, my appendix had been ruptured for over a month including basic training. The surgeons said I am so lucky to be alive. I got a month off to recover and relax. When I got back to Fort Lee, I had to wait another month for class, so eventually when I got to school; I did my best to learn about my job and almost graduated at the top of my class. The reason why I did not graduate at the top of my class was due to my stomach muscles not fully recovering, which made doing sit-ups very hard. I did it because I wanted to join my unit at Fort Lee.

My feelings of excitement and wanting to serve were still in tact even after months of prolong waiting and recovery. In order to be all that I could be, to be the best, I exceed my own abilities by 120%. The mindset I had, came a long way (physically from Phoenix and mentally from the first story I heard about the terrorist attacks), I had really changed for the better. In the first year, I received my first (minor) medal, the Army Achievement Medal. With this acknowledgement from the Army, I wanted to speed up my deployment overseas to Afghanistan, but that wasn’t going to happen until March 18th 2003. According to orders, my team that I was assigned to from my unit wasn’t schedule to arrive in Iraq first. Instead, I worked in the Theater Mortuary Affairs Evacuation Point, a place that went nonstop for the first three months.

Sleep was limited to when I did not hear a helicopter, and when body’s slowed down coming in. In the states I had worked at the Richmond Morgue, but war was different. Instead of just seeing some one you did not know in the states, in Kuwait you learn to know every one, due to them wearing the same uniform, and inventorying all their personal effects, you knew who they wear when they left. Not only was our job to process Americans, but we also helped process British, and any other Allies. During this time I saw the mistakes we made, such as shooting British helicopter down with Sam missiles, and killing Brazilin journalist when we hit the wrong building, during that time I saw the horrors that mankind was possible of. I start experiences, problems, and tried to seek medical help, but I was deferred and told I would be fine. My excitement had come to an end, and I start to get in trouble, pretty soon my 1st Sgt, thought that I was not experiencing enough of the war, so he sent me to the Iraq, Camp Alsad. In Camp Alsad, was slow, but became difficult. Some of the soldiers I ate with at the chow hall, and knew were head on a rest and relaxation mission, but instead of making it, their helicopter was shot down. My team had to go clean the site, recover the bodies, and inventory their belongings. Man life is tough, but even tougher if you know the people. There were two other tough missions. The first were, when three Special Forces soldiers had been killed, when they were given orders not to shoot into a crowd even if they were receiving fire, not only did we have to process their bodies, but we also had to process the bodies of the people who had killed them. We are mortuary affairs first, and as such we have a moral obligation not to look at uniform, or lack of one, but to look at the person and understand their journey had come to a end, and it was our job to treat them with respect because every one has family and friends that care for them, it was not are job to judge right or wrong, which is very hard. The second tough mission was when we went with a convoy head to a site, that they had reportedly killed Sadam Husain, but in fact the compound was filled with animals and women and children. I do not think the Air Force meant to kill them, they were trying to do there job in following cell phone singles, and when they split, they went after the most likely target. On this mission two things had happened. One back in Alsad I was having bad night terrors, but the person in charge of my team figured the answer was not sending me back, but instead was to put me on night duty, and to change the location I slept on, in the location I was, this almost spelled disaster for me and my friend, when I woke up and started to scream at the top of my lungs, the people sleeping around the truck react and were about to shoot in the back of the truck, when my Sgt yelled stop he is just dreaming, oh thank god. The second thing is as I stated before, we are trained to respect the dead, and their belongings. This did not transfer to the people there, instead they were ordered to bury everything, destroy all evidence and move on. That pretty much covers Iraq.

When I got back to the states, I faced many hardships under the care of the Army. I am like millions of other veterans dealing with mental and physical scars of war. Most Americans will never know about these issues because it is not covered in the news or articles. The Army has become a two-sided issue for me; it was once a place where I wanted to succeed at being a great solider and fight for our rights and our country. Now that I came home I am still fighting another battle, however, this fight, I fight alone. I am trying to cope with sudden flashbacks, traumatizing combat events, hyper-vigilance to the recurrence of danger, feelings of numbness, low self-esteem, rage, and lapses in concentration. All of these have caused me to descend in my quality of life. I thought the Army and my unit would continue to care for me, treat me as a fellow solider, and assist me with finding resources for coping and healing. However, this was not the case, my unit classified me as a troublemaker, an unfit solider. As a result, they discharged me out of the Army abruptly without taking responsibility for the causes of my PTSD illnesses. Like other soldiers, I tried to reach out for help but once the system failed, I tried to commit suicide twice during my service. Luckily, both times, one of my few friends stopped me. This incident put me in a mental hospital involuntarily, where they doped me up on strong medicines, and no one cared to seek the reasons behind the action. I wasn’t allowed to receive my care at the Army hospital, because if procedures were followed, there would have been a long investigation and no one wanted to take the time to take care of their wounded soldiers with PTSD. Instead, I was discharged immediately with personality disorder. This seems to be the common practice for the Army, not just in my case but also 20,000 other veterans. At 5 P.M. September 16, 2004, my last official orders from the Army were, TO GET OUT!! Heavily medicated, I received my car keys, and was told to drive over 5000 miles, all the way home to Phoenix, Arizona. My feelings that proscribed afterwards are indescribable.

Even though I am still in my own body, this whole experience has shaped my life. Following my physical return home to Phoenix, AZ, I, however, didn’t return home with my state of mentality. My homecoming wasn’t what I imagined, that is because it was based on tv and movies I’ve seen about returning soldiers as hero’s. I became hospitalized time and time again.

Don’t worry, my story gets better and does have a great beginning. This new chapter in my life begins with the chance meeting the love of my life, my wife. With her continued support, I am able to handle some things on my own. A great support system, love, understanding, and patience, is what I think all soldiers should have and receive upon their return home. After all, the important issue is that we are all humans! With the good and the bad, we will always have our memories.

So on this Veterans Day and every day the best way to honor our veterans is to connect with them. So please remember and honor our fellow humans, our veterans. Without recognition from our family and friends, it doesn’t seem like all of our efforts make a difference. Many of us new veterans are being left behind, we have honored you by defending your rights, and all we ask is to welcome us home.

Joshua C. Poulsen
Iraq and Afghanistan Veteran

Charlie Martin said...

Andrew, soldiers are never stereotyped as "jar heads". Jar heads are Marines, so called because that's how they get those hats to fit so square and tight in dress uniform. (Think mayonnaise jar.)

I don't disagree with you in principle, but you're letting a stereotype of what "soldering" is about mislead you; one of the facts of modern warfare is that we don't need, and can't easily use, masses of troops even if we had them. A modern dogface soldier is practicing a skilled trade that requires about two years of training, and that just for infantry. As a result, we managed to liberate 50 million people in two campaigns that between then cost about as many casualties as a bad day in the European Theatre in WWII, and fewer a quarter of the casualties of the battle of the Somme.

I agree that having wider national service might have some salutary effects, but the day of needing draftees is past.

Dave Barnes said...


Did you forget to take your smart pills this morning?

"Eisenhower, of course, ranks of one of the few senior military officers to serve as President..."


10/44 of our Presidents have held the rank of General. That is approximately 25%. That is not "few". They are: Washington, Jackson, Harrison, Taylor, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Harrison and Eisenhower.


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Corrections made per comments.

As for the whole national service or draft impact on the national consciousness thing, at this point I'm just noodling it. I'm not terribly eager to see a draft, indeed, I'd most likely vigorously oppose one. But, I can also see the dangers of our current all volunteer professionalized Army.