Bottom Line Up Front

From the desk of John Hanson, SVP of Communications at the USO:

Okay, Patrick Kennedy got my attention.  Not because of the screaming – more because of what he said.  Fact is, he probably SHOULD have been shouting.  The media (and the public’s) failure to address two wars – and a larger, arguably global extension of that war – is disturbing.

Reflections on a Magic 8 Ball

A few months ago I watched a video of a focus group in a mid-size city (for focus group mavens, it “tests larger”).  At first, I thought the group was a bit skewed in its political views, but when asked how many liked/disliked the president, the split was just about even.  That might not mean anything, but at least the playing field was somewhat even.

Answers to questions about the wars we’re in were, well, interesting.  “This isn’t MY war,” one said.  “Doesn’t affect me at all.”

Edward "Babe" Hefron (L) and William "Wild Bill" Guarnere (C) two of the World War II veterans that inspired the book and HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers" greets US Army csm Keith West during one of the Persian Gulf stops of the USO/Armed Forces Entertainment "Band of Brothers" tour on September 17, 2008. (USO Photo by Fred Greaves)

For almost 30 years I’ve either advocated on behalf of veterans, worked at a policy level to ensure they got benefits or worked to lift the spirits of active duty troops and families, honoring their service and sacrifice.  “Doesn’t affect me at all” isn’t the right answer in my mind.  I’ve seen what these troops and families go through, and, believe me, it affects us all.  All that John Donne stuff you might not have read lately.  Or at all.

But, as I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog, I recently had a revelation.

Bear With Me.  This isn’t sociology

My father was born the year the U.S. entered World War I.  My brother was born a week or so after Pearl Harbor (my mother said the attack distracted her until the baby got her attention again).  I was born the year the Korean War started, and THAT year was just 34 years removed from the start of World War I in Europe, and about 4 years before the last draftees were born.  I was reared in a town of around 50,000, and I think every one of those people had some close connection to the military.

That means that my parents, my brother and I – and those we knew – knew someone touched by wars going back at least to the Spanish American War, and I’d bet my father might have met a Civil War veteran at some point in his life.

From my perspective, every person I grew up with was affected by military service in one way or another.  Parents or friends either served, were killed or wounded or maybe even just disappeared in the service of their country.  The woman who ran the cafeteria at Alberta Elementary lost a son on D-Day.  He just vanished.  The father of one of my buddies lost his leg in the Korean War.  That means my friend had faint memories of his dad having both legs, and then had to deal with his return as a changed man.  One of my best friends had parents who were both attorneys (this was unusual in the 1950s in Alabama.  Trust me).  His father had been a Marine in World War II.  He came back blinded by a grenade blast somewhere in the Pacific.  My friend would bring his dad’s old wristwatch to show and tell, and demonstrate how the crystal could be raised so you could tell time by touching the watch face.  There were children of Army cooks, quartermaster corps veterans and Air Corps tail gunners.  There were former officers and enlisted folks … and they were all heroes.  Those who returned, put away their uniforms, went to school, got jobs and started families.  They were our politicians, our cops and our PTA leaders.

Everyone I met knew war stories.  Every one had some skin in the game.  Sometimes it led them to join veterans groups.  Sometimes it led them to work for peace.   For all the awfulness for some in the country, there was a common thread that linked us – military service.

Hang in there, this might actually go somewhere.

The disconnect begins

Living through the Vietnam years wasn’t great.  Simply living through them was not as bad as actually fighting in Vietnam, though.

While troops were fighting in Vietnam, many of their contemporaries were delaying service by going to college. I was one of those for a while, but when I was a junior at the University of Alabama, I enlisted in the Air Force.  It was one of my better decisions, but it had some practicality.  I figured that I’d go to Europe or stay stateside, but come nowhere near Southeast Asia or the war.

So, after I got to Thailand, where I worked as a B-52 mechanic, I discovered that the draft was over.  A friend mailed a note (we did that then) with an article about the end of compulsory service.  The note said, “I think you made your move too soon.”  He was a big blues fan.

In those days, whenever service members traveled commercially, we didn’t wear our uniforms (Marines did, but that’s always a different story).  We tried to blend in.  But, we could grow our hair only so much, so the results were mixed.  The point is, it was important to blend in, because there was a great deal of animosity and scorn toward the military.  That came not just from the flag burning bomb throwers, but also from fine, upstanding generally conservative folks, who looked at us as if we were the chumps.  If you were there, you know it was a strange time.

I went back to college, got that behind me and started working.  Except for a short time working for a really great governor and then the National Governors’ Association, 80 percent of my work life has been focused on troops, families and veterans. I’ve been inside the bubble, so any notion that these issues were not on the minds of most Americans would have been dissonant.

But, now it makes sense.  People are focused on their jobs, their families and their lives.  Unless any of those happen to cross with the military, nothing could have been farther from their minds.

Finally, at the USO we talk a lot about the difference between the price and the cost of war.  Discussions by the wise people in the media almost always focus on the price.  “Can we afford this?” “It’s driving up our deficit.”  “If it weren’t for the war, we’d be in better economic shape now.”

And other blah, blah, from the right and the left.

War has a price, and we can decide to pay it or not.  But, military service – especially war service – has a cost that goes on and on.  It’s a cost in human lives and suffering; it’s a price in rehabilitation from serious injuries that would not have been survived in earlier conflicts.  It’s also a cost in human – especially American – decency.  Our vocabulary is filled with trite over-worn quotes about honoring military service.  They’re often attributed to people who didn’t serve, but didn’t mind sending someone else to serve.

As far as I know, George Santayana never served in anyone’s military, but he left us with an important thought: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I lied earlier, there’s no real point here.  The struggle is in getting the message out that there are several hundred thousand of our neighbors doing some pretty tough work on our behalf.  Thinking that each of us does not have a stake in their wellbeing or in their successful return to our communities is worse than shortsighted…it’s potentially dangerous.

Because, Santayana also told us, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

3 thoughts on “Bottom Line Up Front

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