Let's Be Heroes to Our Veterans

Post date: Apr 15, 2011 2:50:08 AM

William J. Astore

William J. Astore

Retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) Posted: 04/11/11 08:51 AM ET

War is remote from the daily concerns of most Americans. It is not, of course, remote from our troops and veterans. As I write this, our troops are engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, as well as several other places not normally featured in daily headlines. In prosecuting these wars, many if not most of our troops have endured multiple deployments under considerable stress, the stress that comes from confronting danger and enduring discomfort in places and cultures utterly foreign to them.

Operating under severe stress that's exacerbated by cultural dislocation, our troops have made courageous decisions, flawed decisions, and deadly decisions. An aberrant few have become murderers. Such is the great tragedy of all wars: they turn young men into killers.

Even in democracies, even in freedom-loving countries, war twists the best of intentions and pollutes the most honorable of minds. It's a tribute to our military that the vast majority of our troops have tried their hardest to uphold standards of decency that are consistent with American values. For their effort and their sacrifices, they deserve our gratitude.

Granted, our gratitude may not imply support of their wars. Indeed, I'd argue we should always abhor war. As Civil War General William T. Sherman declared, "War is cruelty and you cannot refine it." Consider that since 9-11, the U.S. military has suffered 6000 killed-in-action and another 42,000 wounded-in-action: reason enough to hate war and to seek its end.

Ending war and bringing the troops home is thus the most immediate and best way we can "support our troops." And as they return, let's resolve to aid our troops, especially those who've been wounded by the cruelty of war, whether those cruelties were inflicted on them, or by them, or both. And here let's recall that the cruelest wounds may not always be the most visible.

In helping returning troops and veterans, let's begin by listening to them: to their stories, no matter how grim or gory or heartbreaking they may be. The healing process begins with a chance to decompress, a chance to have one's story heard. We should never be too busy or too appalled to listen; like it or not, they were sent to wage war in our nation's name. The least we can do in return is listen -- and learn.

As we listen, let's recognize how tough it can be for combat troops to adjust to civilian life after being "downrange" and in-country and under fire. Yes, veterans are used to tough discipline and tougher times; they won't cry or complain much. Leaving the military may come as a relief to some, but to others it'll come as a profound shock. A sense of purposelessness may follow, as well as a sense of estrangement from the one organization that valued them. Indeed, what I miss most from my military years is the camaraderie of the unit -- a shared sense of belonging.

So: Have sympathy for them as they adjust to new settings, new family situations, and new challenges. Recognize as well that the skills they mastered and took pride in within the military may be of limited (or no) utility in civilian sectors. For a veteran who took pride in his craft to be told his skills lack marketability may be the cruelest wound of all.

Such veterans are not looking for a handout, but a hand up. Let's give them that. Let's help them with retraining opportunities, let's empower them through grants and opportunities in higher education, let's work to find them jobs that give them a sense of purpose and a measure of pride.

And, as much as it may make us feel good, let's not glorify our troops and veterans as so many marble heroes, not out of churlishness or ingratitude, but because our veterans themselves know they're not heroes. (Even those few who truly are heroes will most likely reject the label.) Heroes, for most veterans, are those servicemen and women who didn't come home alive. Elevating our veterans as "heroes," moreover, puts considerable pressure on them to live up to that lofty honorific. A veteran may be less likely to admit she's suffering from PTSD if everyone around her is clapping her on the back and calling her a "hero."

Equally tempting in some quarters is to view our troops as so many victims who were coerced into serving, and who in emerging from war are indelibly marked as damaged goods. Such a view borders on disrespect when we consider that our troops, in volunteering to defend our Constitution, assumed an obligation that was maturely made and which they endeavored to squarely meet. Their service may be charged within domestic political disputes, but their conduct is the true measure of their worth.

So here's my parting shot: Instead of waving the flag and calling our troops and veterans "heroes," how about we vow to be heroes to them? Instead of tarring the sacrifices of the honorable many with the atrocities of the dishonorable few, how about we vow to change our country so that our troops are committed to war only when our ideals are truly in peril?

This story is part of Military Families Week, an effort by HuffPost and AOL to put a spotlight on issues affecting America's families who serve. Find more at jobs.aol.com/militaryfamilies and aol.com.