Friday, November 11, 2011

A chance to say "thank you"

(This is a long one, but I think this day warrants it)

When I was in ROTC in college, I remember being angry that my school didn’t observe Veteran’s Day. More than angry; I was pissed. I told anyone who would listen (and even some who wouldn’t) how pissed I was. I was so high-and-mighty back then; a young cadet with really no understanding of what it meant to be in the military. But I was on to something . . . something that has become much clearer – and much more aggravating – in the years since: veterans are underappreciated.

I’d like to say it’s better now than it used to be. And in many ways it is. Thank God we’ve progressed beyond the Vietnam-era, when soldiers – many who were drafted into service against their wishes – came home to face angry protesters, be spit on, called “baby killers.” What a dark period in American history. Now, it seems, whether or not people agree with this country’s wars, they overwhelmingly support those fighting. I’m grateful for that.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill is a huge improvement over the outdated Montgomery GI Bill, and more veterans are taking advantage of their education benefits than ever before (I’m one of them!). There are also laws in place now to allow service members to break leases if they’re relocated or deployed (I’ve done that!), and laws that require employers to hold jobs for Reservists and National Guardsmen if they’re activated. There are more and better agencies supporting veterans both in and out of the military (I’m definitely using some of those!).

But even when the support systems work, they’re often mired in stigma and move at an excruciatingly slow pace. Organizations are understaffed, underfunded and tangled up in bureaucratic red tape.

And, if statistics are any indication, there’s still a long way to go. Last year for the first time in history the military suicide rate eclipsed that of the civilian sector. While the national unemployment rate hovers around 9%, the unemployment rate for veterans who left active duty since 2001 is a staggering 12.1% (Maze).

Many veterans return from combat with obvious, tragic wounds like missing limbs and severe burns. But many carry deep, unseen scars as well. Studies show that around 40% of OIF/OEF veterans have been diagnosed with some type of mental disorder (depression, anxiety, PTSD), and an estimated 10-20% of returning troops have at least a mild brain injury (Zoroya).

And since the economy is the “hot topic” of the moment, consider this: A new enlisted troop in the rank of E-1 earns $17,604 in annual base pay (the poverty level is $10,890). A first-year officer in the rank of O-1 nets $33,396. By comparison, the minimum salary for a rookie (now-on-strike) NBA player is $473,604 (2010-2011 data). If that’s not a sad commentary on modern American priorities, I don’t know what is.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are officially the longest wars in this nation’s history. Reserve and National Guard Forces are more than pulling their weight with frequent deployments to backfill manning shortages and often don’t have the support structures active duty troops have upon return. We live in an era where, arguably, more is being asked of the all-volunteer military force than ever before.

Yet still, in the debate over national debt, military retirement benefits are on the chopping block; the benefits that were promised upon enlistment, that were paid for in 20+ years of blood, sweat and tears and unfathomable sacrifice.

I’m not asking you to run out and write your congressman (although that would be awesome!). I’m just asking you – today, any day, every day – to say “thank you.” Sometimes that’s all it takes.

I remember once after a long, hard day at work I stopped for takeout on my way home. I was still in my uniform, looking, I’m sure, unprofessionally frazzled. When I got my food, someone had picked up my tab. I thanked him and he said, “No, thank you for your service.” I cried the whole way home because it felt so good to be appreciated.

When I got back from Afghanistan, all it took was someone saying “thank you” to open the flood gates. I had felt so isolated for so long, in a place where people were, at best, ambivalent about my existence; a place so cut off from the rest of the world. That small gesture – thank you – showed me people cared.

So today I want to say thank you to those who bear the burden:

To those who have served, and those who continue to serve, THANK YOU.

To those who have been force shaped, medically discharged, prevented from deploying or in some way limited in the capacity to which you could serve, you are veterans too. THANK YOU.

To those who serve on the homefront, maintaining families, careers, sanity, LIFE while your spouses, children, parents, siblings, friends, coworkers deploy, we couldn’t do it without you. THANK YOU.

**If you want to say “thank you” in another way, the following link has a comprehensive list of organizations that support service members and their families. You can send letters and care packages to deployed troops, “adopt” a service member, volunteer with or donate to a non-profit veteran support organization, or contribute to a scholarship fund for children of service members killed in action. Check it out:


Fairweather, Amy (prepared by) “Swords to Plowshares Iraq Veteran Project.” National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, Dec. 7, 2006. Web. Nov. 10, 2011.

Maze, Rick. “Jobless rate increases for young veterans.” Air Force Times, Nov. 4, 2011. Web. Nov. 10, 2011.

“Veterans’ Mental Health Concerns Rising.” Psych Central Online, July 18, 2009. Web. Nov. 11, 2011.

Zoroya, Gregg. “Troops risk undetected brain injury.” USA Today, June 7, 2006. Web. Nov 11, 2011.

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