It’s sad to admit, but I was almost going to leave out the “Gulf War” part of the title, because I didn’t want to trigger any negative responses. The word veteran is pretty easily used among my friends, and we say how proud we are of veterans. But “that damn war” is a different topic altogether.
Of course, no one blames the soldiers. They are the ones dying. And their families are the ones suffering for the loss of the youth and strength of their loved ones. As one friend reminded me, the ones who don’t die have a more difficult battle: coming home scarred. Missing limbs, unexplained ailments from the desert, gone wrong in the head. There is radiation poisoning from depleted uranium that gets passed down to their kids. There is traumatic brain injury.
This does not describe every veteran. Many odd vets are like me. I don’t have physical scars, yet I’m burdened with conflicts. I am proud to have served my country. Proud to have sacrificed some comfort and some personal freedom in order to be at the President’s beck and call to answer some future unknown summons and do the job I was trained to do. It’s a proud calling. It’s just that, among civilians and military both, my calling was support staff. I wasn’t in the battle. I worked in weather, ensuring that the aircraft could take off and land safely. A critical part of every operation is support staff…but support staff (in any possible meaning of the word) are rarely lauded as they deserve to be.
Out of frustration of the pressure of this social inadequacy, I and other members of my unit volunteered to be sent directly to the desert sands, at the onset of Operation Desert Shield in August of 1990. Our offers were rejected because our mission at that time was too important for us to be let go. We were in Alaska, and our mission was support of the Star Wars program (it has since been declassified, so I can tell you and I don’t have to take you out, heh heh).
But the thing that sticks with me is the idea that our image of ourselves: “defenders of the country,” prompted us to volunteer to be sent directly into battle, rather than stay safe in Alaska. Isn’t that curious?
Then there is the civilian side of it. I just came from years at a University: not the best place for solider support. People asked me how I could agree to become a soldier when it meant that I could have to kill others. People asked me how I could agree to support the Air Force when I believed that war didn’t solve problems. Didn’t I ask all these moral questions of myself before I joined?
Well, actually, no. I believe in my country. I had committed myself to the support of my nation, and committed myself to obeying orders as I was trained to do. I didn’t think about politics, or morals, or peace tactics vs. war tactics. It was simple and elegant: I wanted to give of myself to the country I loved and was proud of. I left it up to my superiors to decide what should be done with me.
I did not ask moral questions when I volunteered to join the Persian Gulf conflict. I was a member of the US armed forces. My country was at war. I saw myself as a warrior, and I felt impotent while stuck in Alaska observing weather for secret spy missions to Russia. The mindset is hard to explain unless you’ve felt it yourself.
McCormick & Schmick’s is a seafood restaurant that – at least locally – offered up free dinners to veterans last night. My partner and I went to sample the fare, but sampled more of the atmosphere than we were expecting. The place was jammed with members of the 187th Helicopter Company, Vietnam Vets and their spouses. I met a woman with the 187th group in the bathroom who was visiting from Texas. I asked if she was a veteran. “No, I’m with my husband-” she began. Then she said, “Yes. I am a veteran. I stayed home all by myself and raised 5 kids!” I saw her point. “You served your time,” I affirmed.
I am glad that our nation stands behind our soldiers now better than we did during the Vietnam War.
It feels like there is a persistent collective recollection of how we further injured returning Vietnam Vets by taking out our political frustration on them. Americans are careful not to do it openly anymore. But… I can see the confusion lingers with us still. While we do not spit on vets any more, many of us have unvented anger. Many Americans are frustrated about the war, and have no one else to engage with. Washington authority is this Wizard of Oz idea, mystical and powerful and unattainable. Returning vets ARE attainable, sitting in a University class for example.
My message here is getting to be about as convoluted as my feelings. But the final point I’ll come back to is this: aside from all the anxiety I feel about the war we are in that I don’t believe in, and aside from the strange sense of shame I feel for having been a soldier but not having been in a battle, and aside from the pure anger I feel about how our military is a perfect hegemonic weapon to keep the weak and poor down while buoying the strong and rich, I am proud to have served. I am proud to have been a solider who supported Desert Shield and Desert Storm. I love my country fiercely, and I have done something about it.