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.”

A Reality Check

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

Oscar-nominated actor Jeremy Renner and TAPS founder Bonnie Carroll at the TAPS screening of The Hurt Locker in August 2009.

Okay.  Maybe it’s time to take a breath about The Hurt Locker. [Ed. note: take a moment to read an interview with the film's Anthony Mackie and see how he supports the troops.] Some vets are offended that it wasn’t completely accurate.  Fair enough.   It wasn’t a documentary.  Films about, say journalists (All the President’s Men, or Broadcast News, for example) aren’t, either, but they’re entertaining and provide SOME insight.  I’m not all that sure Wall Street was completely accurate, but it was educational in a way.

So, Hurt Locker, didn’t provide absolute accuracy.  The explosions were too pretty for my taste, but it was a feature film.  What can we take from it?

There’s a feeling across the land that Americans aren’t engaged in Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom.  Americans feel it, veterans sense it, and that might be what we should expect.

There’s no draft.  Until the 70s, if there was an 18-year-old male in a household, there was at least a reasonable chance that he’d be in the military.  Today, that isn’t the case.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing for a draft.  Today’s military is too good to go back to that model.  But, as great and talented and committed as our troops are, they’re a really small part of the population.  When they get out of the military, they tend to do what every generation of veterans does – go to school, get jobs, raise families and be extremely valuable parts of their communities.

Few wear their decorations on their suits.  Very few even let you know they served, unless you ask them.  They just become the strongest threads of the fabric of this country.

Part of me would like welcome home parades and all that kind of thing.  A big part of me would love for the country to take a moment – it can even be a random moment – to thank troops and their families for their service and sacrifice.  Not because those of us who served a generation ago didn’t get that, but because it would be a proper and polite thing to do.  It’s about more than thanking a service member in an airport.  It’s about more than misting up on Memorial Day.  It’s about recognizing that service and sacrifice are responsibilities each of us bears in different ways.  Some just run the risk of paying a higher price.

And, understand the stress of one deployment to Afghanistan to Iraq can be debilitating in some ways.  Never mind 3 or 4 deployments.  These troops and vets need our support and understanding.  Our wounded warriors shouldn’t be ignored, either.

So, maybe this Best Picture Academy Award® (I love trademarks) winner deserves something more from us.  Maybe it requires that we look at it as a learning opportunity.  In our communities there are OIF/OEF vets quietly putting their lives back together, and they are doing their part to making our lives better.

Let’s return the favor.

Saluting

From the desk of John Hanson, Senior Vice President of Communications for the USO:

First of all, I love this country.  You’re waiting for a conjunction, aren’t you? Nope.  I just wanted that on the table.

U.S Soldiers with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment raise an American flag on a roof being used as a lookout point during Operation Helmand Spider in Badula Qulp, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Feb. 10, 2010. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez/Released)

Lately, I’ve been thinking about saluting the flag.  Last year, Congress made it acceptable for veterans and military members not in uniform to render the traditional hand salute (right hand to the right eyebrow) when the colors of the nation are formally presented.  I understand why that might be important to some people, but I have to wonder what’s wrong with the other traditional method of honoring the flag (right hand over heart).

First, please understand, honoring the flag is something far too few Americans do; and often when they do, it’s a clumsy exercise in what seems to be embarrassed under achievement.  You can almost see people asking, “Am I doing this right? How long do I do it? Is anyone watching me?”

But, I’ve also noticed that over the past few years, more and more people are making the effort to respect the flag, and even the clumsiest efforts will eventually become easy.  I take that as good news.  (Reading the very brief and easily understood U.S. Flag Code is also a good idea)

A few months ago, I was at an indoor event.  The Master of Ceremonies urged all veterans and military members out of uniform to render the traditional hand salute to honor the flag as the Color Guard made its way forward.  On the one hand (no puns here, really) it was quite a sight, seeing people in suits standing and saluting proudly.  I stood there, with my hand over my heart (I’m a veteran and proud of it) wondering:

–Are these folks all veterans?  How do we know?

–Aren’t we inside?  Do people salute inside these days?

–Shouldn’t there be some kind of headwear?

Okay, I didn’t wonder all that until the colors were presented, the National Anthem performed and the Color Guard left the room.

I’m not sure when this saluting as a civilian behavior started.  When I was a kid, I don’t remember seeing President Eisenhower salute the Marines at the White House or when he left Air Force One.  I remember his nodding and going about his business.  Maybe I’m wrong, but if HE could get away with not saluting, can’t other Presidents?  I could be over thinking this, but one of the great principles that makes the United States unique is that the military is under the ultimate control of a civilian leader – the President.  In many ways, that’s been a comfort.  The public’s requirement that a president salute makes me uncomfortable, somehow.  That’s not a partisan statement, it’s just a statement. I remember one of my ROTC instructors explaining the salute as a way to “Say Hello.”  Isn’t that what the wave of a hand does?

What’s also unique about this country is how many people will tell me I’m wrong, rather than simply telling me they disagree with me.  The quickest way to kill a conversation is to turn it off with one of those “right-wrong” or “right-left” exchanges.   So it goes.

Look, I don’t care if you want to salute.  What was seen as a tremendous hassle to those of us when we were in the lower enlisted ranks seems to be something else today.

So, go ahead.  Hold that salute for the Colors to come in and for the National Anthem.  Just don’t sing while you’re doing it.  That, it seems to me, is a real break in saluting protocol.

Me?  I’m proud to place my hand over my heart, like my Daddy taught me.

Have a Coke and a Smile

From the Desk of John Hanson, Senior Vice President of Communications at the USO:

“The USO’s been long enough to touch the lives of troops and families from World War II though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We hear stories almost everywhere we go. It’s like joining an ongoing conversation friends have over a cup of coffee.

This afternoon someone came to our office to thank us. It seems he was in the neighborhood, visiting a client when he saw our name on the sign outside the building here in Arlington.

He told us he was a young Marine officer in Somalia in the early 1990s. It was awful duty. One day he ran across a small USO canteen on his base. “I was able to get a warm Coke,” he said. “Best Coke I ever had.”

A can of Coca-Cola continues to be a part of Troops' lives, as evidenced by this recent bar-b-que at Camp Virginia in Kuwait.

He almost apologized for being a “small donor.” I told him there was no such thing, and showed him around the office. We have a large photo of Toby Keith and one of his guitarists entertaining troops at a very remote forward operating base in Afghanistan. “People ask me what Afghanistan is like,” I told him. “I steer them to this photo. That’s Afghanistan – not very lush, very desolate in places.”

“Yeah,” he said. “When I was in Somalia you guys sent Garth Brooks. I stayed in back so my Marines could see him. I was more interested in the warm Coke.”

It was one of those profoundly simple meetings that illustrated the good our donors cause to happen. Just a passing kindness from one stranger to another stranger in a very strange and remote place that is for most of us a dot on a map we don’t pay much attention to.”

Happy Anniversary, USO! And Thank You to All Who Make it Possible…

From the Desk of John Hanson, Senior Vice President of Communications at the USO:

“February 4 is the USO’s 69th birthday.  That’s not a meaningful milestone in itself (unless you’re 68), but it reminds me that in parts of 8 decades, this organization continues to deliver support for troops and families with compassion and relevance.

I’m also reminded that our corps of staff and volunteers around the world show up each day at large and small locations and they solve problems.  When a young soldier appears at the USO at Dallas-Ft Worth Airport after missing his flight, he’s told to relax, get a cup of coffee, it’ll be all right.  Sure enough, the USO volunteer at the desk arranges for the next flight and calls the troop’s next base to explain what happened.

From Chicago to Kuwait, the desk where staff and volunteers sit and greet Troops serves as the nerve center of any USO. (USO Photos by Dave Gatley)

I once saw a recent graduate of the Navy’s boot camp at Great Lakes walk into the USO at O’Hare Airport with her orders and ask what she was supposed to do when she arrived at her first real duty station.  It seems that step was omitted in her out-processing briefing, and it occurred to her on the way to the airport that she was taking the second airplane flight of her life to a place she’d never been and into an environment with which she was totally unfamiliar.  The former sailor behind the counter looked at her orders, looked up the location of the personnel office at the next stop and gave her specific instructions about how to report for duty.

I accompanied a USO entertainment tour through Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan a few years ago.  On the way home we stopped to put on a show in Italy.  I met one of our employees of our USO in Vicenza there.  She told me how important the shows were to the troops wherever we went, and she wanted to thank us for stopping in her country.  She went on to tell me that a deployment from Vicenza to Afghanistan just ended, and she mourned as she told me about her “boys” who didn’t return.  “It’s tough on everybody,” she said.  “The families, of course, but also the extended families – the troops who knew them.  It’s really hard on all of us.”

Volunteers at the DFW USO celebrate a USO Birthday with - what else? - a delicious cake in 2009.

She went on to tell me that one day she went into the kitchen at the USO to make a cake.  Soon, troops started coming into the kitchen to “help” her.  There they were, some of the finest soldiers in the Army licking spoons and beaters, helping out as they would back home.

She went on to make more cakes, but she only did it when the USO was busy.  She knew she’d get more help.  “After all,” she said, “it’s not about the cakes.  It’s about MAKING the cakes.”  It was about being with Mom in the kitchen.

In 69 years we’ve moved from providing letter-writing stations to providing free Internet connections.  Films projected onto sheets have become videos on large screen TVs.  There’s still coffee and magazines and comfortable furniture.  There’s still the respite from hard duty.  And, there’s still Mom in the kitchen making a cake.

It’s just like home.”

Some Reflections For Our Anniversary

From the Desk of John Hanson, Senior Vice President of Communications at the USO:

“First, a statement for the record – or at least that part of the record that includes social media. The president’s announcement that the last combat troops would leave Iraq in August could not have come soon enough. No one wants troops home more than my colleagues and I do. We’ve got friends who have served there, and who have been injured there. And, who have died there. Every day someone here sees what war does to the warriors.

But, there should also be a reminder that tens of thousands of troops will still be in the region – not to mention Afghanistan. Please don’t forget that troops around the world are serving around the world – away from friends and families. They’re missing birthdays and anniversaries and the births of children. Many aren’t in combat, but they’re just as likely to be in lonely isolated places, defending us. Their service counts and it’s important. My father is a World War II veteran who never got closer to overseas than San Francisco. I’m counted as a Vietnam veteran, but I repaired aircraft in Guam and Thailand. I am as proud of my service as my father was of his.

On February 4, the USO will enter the last year of its 7th decade (just a few months before I enter the first year of mine. But, this isn’t about me. At least not ALL about me). The USO’s focus from the beginning was on the simple notion of providing morale services for members of the U.S. military. We do that well, by the way.

Over the years, we’ve seen waves of support during times of war, and just the opposite in times of peace. Our challenge is to ensure that we continue to support troops around the world every day of every year – in times of war or peace.

The current conflicts this country is engaged in are complicated. My guess is that we will be involved in one way or another for the foreseeable future. As a veteran of our last long war, I’ve seen how the public’s patience can cause it to focus its discontent on troops, rather than the government. So far, that hasn’t happened. Regardless of how people view our foreign policy, support for the troops and for the USO remains strong. Maybe it’s because my generation realizes how we lost focus more than a generation ago. I hope so.

Wayne Newton entertains Troops on the first USO Celebrity Entertainment Tour in Afghanistan, December 2001.

One more thing. Earlier this week, I saw a brief mention of an attack at the US base at Camp Phoenix, near Kabul, Afghanistan. I paid attention because I’ve been there a few times. The 5-minute drive from Kabul to Phoenix is an exercise in breath holding. The distance is short, but the atmosphere is extremely tense. I hate to talk about being worried, because when we’re there it’s only for a few days. Our troops do this day in and day out for months at a time.

The report underscored what we already know. The U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan are facing difficulties we can hardly imagine. We can’t forget their service and their sacrifice – or that of their families.”