The Cost of Patriotism

I’m going to go ahead and let you know — this is a very difficult topic for me to write about. It’s been dancing in me head for a while now, but given that yesterday was Veteran’s Day and today is its observance, it seemed appropriate. So, time to dive down in! To begin, I’m a military brat; specifically, my father was career Army. He served in the Vietnam “conflict” — twice, earning two Purple Hearts — and then moved into Recruitment, followed by Logistics, which is when he retired. He was enlisted his entire career and retired as an E-8.

He was also one of the biggest bastards I’ve ever met, and I swore to myself that I would never, ever ever join the military, if it meant being shaped into what he was. Oh, little did I know or understand then; however, I was one of the costs of his patriotism. Our family was a cost. You see, my father suffered with (decades-old undiagnosed) PTSD. PTSD has become a catch-phrase for us, today; it’s nothing new, and the VA has definitely led the way on learning about it, understanding it, and attempting to treat it. However, the military’s stance on PTSD has been less-than-stellar. In fact, my best friend, a Lt. Colonel now and set to retire in about a year-and-a-half, suffers PTSD. She refuses to get seen for it, however, because any whiff of it in her evals and she’ll lose her position, be forced into retirement before she’s served the time required for her rank; all her achievements and everything she’s worked so very hard for will count for nothing. And she wasn’t a combatant, she was what’s called C-CAT (Critical Care Air Transport). This means that she kept “her boys” alive while they were being flown from combat arenas to surgical facilities equipped to deal with their wounds. In many cases, she told me, she considered it her job just to keep them alive so they could say ‘bye to Mama. Yeah, she has PTSD; each deployment she served took her about six months to begin to recover from. From there, she’d have another six or so months before she deployed again. Just stop and think about that a moment, ok? This means that for over 12 years, she willingly put herself into a position to struggle to keep soldiers (kids!) alive, knowing she’d lose most of them.

How can you not honor that commitment?

My dad? He definitely struggled with PTSD. I don’t know a great deal about his combat experiences; he really didn’t talk about them. I do know that he was a “Jungle Warfare Trainer.” This means he taught others how to fight in the jungle, in one of the more confusing combat initiatives our country has engaged in. I also know that his peers considered him extremely deadly, and extremely good at what he did. I know he received two Purple Hearts, which are awarded for receiving injuries in the line of combat or, posthumously, to those who died in the line of combat. I know that he has horrible scars across his chest, his back, and the tops of his buttocks from shrapnel wounds; I know he still has pieces of shrapnel in his body, as they were deemed too difficult to remove. I know that, growing up, we learned to never go near him to wake him, rather to stand across the room and holler to get his attention. Why? Because he slept with a big ol’knife under his pillow, for many years, and even after he gave that up, we did not want to startle him awake, and be in reach. His startle response was usually to debilitate first, then figure out where he was next.

I also know that he, to this day, carries anger and grief — in equal parts — that go back to that time in Vietnam. You see, he engaged in direct combat with the VC regularly; he lost fellow troops; but even more? When he came back to America after the “war” was over, he was reviled, treated as a pariah by the very society he believed he was protecting from communists. Furthermore? He was angry. Actually, angry doesn’t even begin to cover what he lived with. To understand his anger, though, you’d have to understand some things about military training … so hold this thought while I go into my brief explanation of how the military trains soldiers.

First of all there are the tests. Why tests? Because it’s in the military’s best interests to put people where they can function at their best — whether that’s in direct combat or behind-the-scenes in medical, communication, logistics, intelligence, or other capacities. So, tests and tests and tests … followed by training. This training is designed to do many things, but one thing very well. That is to tear down the individual and rebuild them into a person who’s a cohesive part of a unit. In short, when you enter the military and go into Boot Camp, or Basic, you are carefully conditioned to function, not for your own interests, but for the interests of your unit. If your unit fails, everyone in the unit shares accountability; if your unit succeeds, everyone in your unit is also accountable. Trust me, if you’ve never lived it — or lived with it as a part of your daily life — you can’t understand what it means. In short, it means that a group of individual men and/or women who enter the military at the same time learn to function as a part of a cohesive whole where the benefit to the whole outweighs the individual benefits.

Then Boot Camp, or Basic Training, teaches military personnel to accept orders. They are carefully taught the difference between legal and illegal orders, though the distinctions can be fuzzy at times; and they are taught that following these orders will (hopefully) bring about the desired outcome and (hopefully also) protect their unit(s).

Military experience also teaches hierarchy, and a respect for the chain of command. It’s not unrealistic to expect people to question orders, but hierarchical command teaches these people when it’s appropriate to question orders. If you’re in an office brainstorming with your superior, questions may well be invited; if you’re in combat, you obey and question later, if at all.

You see, our military has one ostensible purpose — to defend. Our defenders are highly-trained, highly-skilled individuals who put their rights as American citizens on hold, long enough to achieve a purpose; whether that purpose is to do their time and get a GI Bill for education or it’s just a desire to serve their country during their time in uniform, they know from the time they sign that dotted line til they either retire or accept discharge that they may be called upon to serve in a combat arena; and usually, not just once. These people are to be respected and honored as heroes, even if they never actually serve in combat. They are willing to, and even if they don’t engage in combat, they do what’s necessary to support those who do. But when you accept as part of your society an institution which has only one ostensible purpose — to defend — you must also accept that that institution will have to teach its members to kill. If you’ve never read it, I strongly recommend reading “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society“, by Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman (click here). Colonel Grossman fully explores how very alien it is for any species to easily kill within their own species, and he discusses what’s involved in teaching us to overcome that, so that soldiers can kill efficiently, in the name of defense.

In short, my father was taken in by the United States Army when he was 17 (at this time, it was a legal age for enlistment) and taught a few key lessons: First, that he was not an individual, but a part of a unit; second, that he had an obligation, in order for his branch of the military to protect those he loved at home, to be willing to follow orders as delivered without question; third, that he must operate within his lawful chain of command.

This brings us back to the point I left earlier — my father’s expansive anger. Why was he angry? Because he survived. Survivor’s guilt is simple in explanation and complex in understanding, but the essence of it is “I lived while my buddy(ies) died, and they were better than I was.” It is often also accompanied by a sense that if the person had been smarter, faster, stronger — any -er, actually — then their buddy may not have been in that predicament, or the survivor may have been able to “help”. In my father’s case, he was severely wounded following an action, and one of his buddies — a combat medic — was pumping all the wounded full of morphine following the action. Why? Because the VC made a habit of stabbing any bodies they found with their bayonets, in order to elicit a response. If a soldier responded after being stabbed, they were killed. Battlefield efficiency. My father’s drugged-up body was collected, finally, with the bodies of other combatants at that battle site and flown off by helicopter; the only reason they figured out he was alive was because the chopper hit turbulence in the air and he grunted as he was rolled.

My father believed for most of my life that his buddy was killed while pumping him full of morphine — while saving his life. He believed that this man gave his own life so my father could live, and my father didn’t feel he was worth that sacrifice. He didn’t find out until about 2010, when he went to the Vietnam Memorial (The Wall) that his buddy actually lived past injecting my father, and had done the same for several other soldiers before he was killed. He learned this by corresponding with that buddy’s family; for the first time in over 30 years, he learned he wasn’t the cause of this man’s — this friend’s — death. Now, he had to learn how to let go of that anger, that grief, that guilt, and move on.

I believe that Vietnam was the first war Americans engaged in where the realities of war were brought regularly into viewers’ homes. In war, atrocities occur. In the case of Vietnam, we weren’t even actually at war; rather, Vietnam was considered a “police action,” meaning soldiers were sent into a combat arena to fight and kill without a formal declaration of war. To say the American public was outraged is simplistic, at best. But then the images being beamed into homes displayed the atrocities “our” soldiers were committing as well, without any sense of context about what they faced as they attempted to follow legal orders in the combat arena.

Or, sadly, the atrocities committed by soldiers whose minds had already been broken.

Further, prior to the Vietnam conflict, soldiers returning from other combat arenas were greeted with parades, with people lined up to treat them as heroes, with people thanking them for their service. The combatants returning from Vietnam received a much chillier response as they came home — from both civilians, and from other military personnel who’d fought in previous wars. Part of the reason for the chilly reception by military personnel was because the returning soldiers were seen as having “lost the war” in Vietnam; a war that was in fact never declared. In short, public and military support for these soldiers was non-existent; they were a blight, best to be ignored and forgotten as we strove to push past this unfortunate time in history.

For me, this meant that I grew up in a household with a very angry father who, along with a very mentally ill mother, made life a living hell for me and my siblings.

But I also grew up in a military family; all enlisted, but military nonetheless. I saw my uncle, my cousins, my grandfather — none of whom exhibited the levels of anger and animosity I saw, daily, in my father. None of the rest of the men in my family, that I knew of, regularly beat the hell out of their children. None of the other men regularly smashed us into walls. None of the rest were able to use words to so thoroughly destroy someone else, as he used on us, as we grew up. My father’s belief in his country, and his role in protecting his country, combined with his belief in what it meant to be a man at that time, combined with his PTSD and survivor’s guilt, meant that he had little positive which he was able to share with his family.

The other side of that coin, though, is displayed by isolated incidents with my father, as I grew. We’d try, so very hard, to function as a family; it never lasted long. But I remember one incident that perfectly summarized his response to his treatment, post-war: He and I were out shopping for some clothes for my birthday, and he went to pay for the clothes with a check. His name on his checks read “John R. Doe, III, SFC, U.S.A.” The clerk at the counter questioned what “SFC” meant when combined with “United States of America.” My father’s face quickly turned to disgust, while I explained that SFC was Sergeant First-Class, his rank at retirement, in the United States Army (U.S.A.). I then had to explain that “United States of America” was usually represented (at this time) as either “USA” or “US of A.” After we left the store, he shook his head, lamenting what “kids these days” were (or better yet, were not) being taught, that they didn’t even know what standard military designations meant.

He was genuinely puzzled by this lack of knowledge; he was hurt, that our society had gone so far as to remove from public knowledge the realities of service — the bad parts, but also the good parts. He couldn’t understand why people couldn’t see that for him, as for so many men and women, joining the military was a way of being a part of something bigger than they were, a way of serving their country with pride and distinction. In the civilian world, he was lost because he was career military; he had spent the majority of his adult life in an insular world where everyone was working toward the same goals, and entered a world where no one knew the things that he considered important. He couldn’t understand how our society had so quickly lost track of what these things meant, and how heroic so many of the military truly were. He also didn’t understand why anti-military feelings were getting so strong and, in his opinion, so out of hand; after all, these were the very people he fought to defend! But as he was saying this, shaking his head, he also said to me, “Well, I guess that’s what I put my life on the line for; so they can live with their ignorance if that’s what they want to do.”

In short, my father is and was, and will die, a Patriot. He absolutely believes that, whether what he was doing in that arena was war or not, he was doing his job. He was following orders, he was protecting his country, and he was looking out for his buddies. While I loathe this man, I also honor and respect him. I understand him, which isn’t the same as being able to live with him in my life; I understand how he became what he was, and I miss having had a father. Sometimes, even more because the very few moments when he was just my “dad” were so powerful, I allow myself to wonder what our lives would have been like, had he had the help he needed after his service ended.

So what’s the cost of patriotism? Oh, let me count the ways. There’s the cost to the soldier, the psychological cost of learning to kill, then of killing. The psychological cost of losing buddies — brothers and sisters — closer to them, often, than their “real” families. The guilt that goes with the loss of each of these members of their units. The cost of coming back from an unpopular (or, these days, any) war and being reviled by the very people they thought they were protecting. And the cost to the families of these people.

Society let my father down. The military institution, by rejecting the notion of PTSD, of survivor’s guilt, of the myriad different psychological impacts of war, let him down. Our entire country let him down, and put the burden for moving past or dealing with — or not dealing with — his experiences entirely on him, and on the family that lived with him. So it could also be said that our family and families just like ours, this nation over, were let down by the people who ordered him and his fellow soldiers into combat, then refused to care for him/them on their return; also by the very people our soldiers, past and present, strive their entire careers to protect, to defend.

Since Vietnam, our country has engaged in wars or military actions at least 32 other times. This is 32 other opportunities for soldiers to go to a foreign country, put their life on the line, and potentially lose that life. Or lose someone close to them. Or lose a limb. Or be exposed to chemicals and other agents which will remain with them the rest of their lives.

What is the cost of patriotism? It is PTSD, and survivor’s guilt. It is the loss of life, and the loss of limb, and the loss of loved ones. It is memory, etched brilliantly in the minds of combatants for all time, of what humans are willing to do to each other. It is families torn apart, and families devastated, by lack of appropriate care for their returning soldiers. It is a populace that has made it a mark of distinction to spit on and name-call returning soldiers — and if you think it doesn’t still happen, I’m here to tell you, it does.

Bringing this back to me, I’ll tell you what Patriotism means to me. It means having a father I alternately respect and hero-worship, and can’t stand. Hate is sometimes applicable; we don’t speak, because it’s easier for us both. I wait to hear that he’s dying, wondering if I’ll even have the ability to go to his bedside during that time.

Patriotism means a man, or a woman, willing to subject themselves to hardship, deprivation, and animosity in order to do their job, to protect the very same people who call them names. Patriotism means a love of country, even when you disagree with that country’s policies. It means a willingness to fight, and to die, for ideals that don’t even cross the minds of most of your average civilians. It means a dedication to promoting the ideals that contribute to cohesiveness and unity, even when our society firmly rejects those ideals. It means being willing to be seen as the bad guy, in order to be what you believe is the good guy. It means, for so many, broken lives, broken dreams, and shattered families.

Is there any other emotion I can feel on Veteran’s Day, than respect, and honor, and a sense of awe for these people? Yes, actually, I suppose there is.

There’s also utter disgust for the way these heroes are relegated to second-class citizens, the way they’re forgotten, and overlooked, and swept under the rug, rather than being appreciated for what they’ve given, or been willing to give.

This all came about because of the following cartoon, which is all-too-current, and all-too-real:

Known Soldier

I don’t care what your stance is on our country’s “leaders,” or on their policies. I don’t care whether you “believe in war” or you think we can solve every crisis without it. I don’t care, at all, how you feel about violence, guns, or conflict. What I care very much about is how you see and treat our patriots, our veterans. I care that they not be overlooked. I am angered, every single time I drive by or walk by someone with a sign saying “Veteran, need food” or whatever they need. Do you have any idea how many of our veterans end up homeless, simply because they can’t integrate into civilian society? The burden of integration is put on them — take these classes. Go to this therapy. So on and so forth.

When will we, as citizens, step forth and assume the burden for treating these people as those worthy of our respect, our honor, and our thanks? When will we say that it is absolutely intolerable that these people are willing to risk life, limb, and sanity for our defense, but they don’t deserve to be cared for?

At the very least, we should approach those we see in uniform and thank them. Thank them for their service; thank them for their very willingness to go into combat on our behalf. They deserve that much from us if we’re unwilling to give more. But beyond that? We owe it to them to stand up for them, to return to them some of that same willingness to go to bat, but on their behalf, not ours. We owe it to them to demand the military recognize the many afflictions that impact them, and their families, when they serve in combat. We further owe it to them to demand that they not be penalized for admitting, and seeking help for, mental issues arising from their experiences while wearing our country’s uniform and engaged in activity promoted as being in our country’s best interests. Regardless of whether you believe in the military, or in the rightness of individual conflicts.

These people are heroes. Perhaps, one day, I’ll share with you the heroism of my best friend, who has kept alive so many … and while shopping in her uniform, was spit on, called names, and put in fear for her safety, because she was wearing her uniform.

Let’s treat them as the heroes they are, and stop allowing them to be kicked under the rug, k? Thanks.

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