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Before You 'Thank Them for Their Service'

Memorial DayThis is about soldiers. Since it is Memorial Day, I believe that we should not only memorialize those that died, but also those that lost their soul or humanity or both, because of what they did and what they saw. The parades and the flags are really not put out there in public to "memorialize" those that lost their lives in the wars, but to make us feel better about it.

Those are harsh words, I know. What made me come to this point of view you may ask? Maybe it's because I spent 21 years of my life as a soldier. Maybe because I'm growing old, and with age comes wisdom, gained from experiencing life and seeing the same patterns repeat themselves time and time again. It is unfortunate some people never understand, no matter how long they survive, because they just don't think about it. They don't want to think about it. They would rather live in a life of illusion... preferable to a life of reflection.

I remember that my father never talked of his service during World War II. He was on Okinawa during the entire campaign with the Fifth Marines, from landing on the beach to the capture of the island. The only thing he ever told me about that battle was that the civilians went up the cliffs and threw themselves down on the rocks. I saw him brush the tears away from his eyes. The only other thing he ever told me about his service was a Jeep ride through Tokyo during the occupation. That was it. I learned not to ask. I didn't want to see my Dad cry again.

I knew some men that had been in the Korean War, but they too didn't talk about it much. Growing up, I never heard much about that war. It's only been in the last twenty years that I learned what happened there; even I spent five years there. I know 36,516 were killed. They call the "Forgotten War". I wonder if the people that loved those who were killed will ever forget.

I also saw the way soldiers were treated when they came back from Vietnam. They were treated like pariahs. Those that were against the war rejected them as pawns of the State and baby-killers, and those that were for the war treated them graciously at first, but as the war seemed go against the United States, they started to blame the soldiers. They were not well received by employers that thought of them as psychologically disturbed and prone to drug use. The term "PTSD" never entered the conversation back then... they were just undesirable. The truth is that 58,209 of these Vietnam Vets never came back to experience the abuse. I saw it first hand as a soldier in the Army from January 1968 until April of 1975 and as a civilian, and the truth is undeniable. It happened, maybe not to all, but to many.

The dead from Korea and Vietnam would turn over in their graves (those lucky enough to be found and buried) if they saw how we treated their comrades on their return. We shamed their memory.

Now we are in a somewhat "Imperial Age" and we are prone to make martyrs of our dead and wounded from the incessant wars that we have been embroiled in for the last 12 years (not to mention the continuous "interventions" in Latin America and elsewhere). Now the nation glorifies our soldiers and the latest phrase is "thank you for your service". Everyone is so thankful, but what are they really thankful for?  Are they thankful for the 4,488 killed in Iraq or the 6,717 (so far) that have been killed in Afghanistan and other places in the "War or Terror", or are they thankful that we now have an "All Volunteer" Army and that their sons and daughters didn't have to face the draft and be put in harm's way? I just don't get it. Just what is it that everyone is "thankful" for?

Today we have made memorials a centerpiece of our society. We memorialize the World Trade Center, The Pentagon, The field in Pennsylvania and decades after the Vietnam War we built a Memorial Wall in Washington DC to finally honor those that died.

What I'm trying to say here is that things like Memorial Day and shrines to honor the dead don't replace the people that died. Maybe it's used as way for people to grieve or to legitimize the deaths of those that sacrificed their lives, but it will never bring them back. The real way to honor those that died is to honor their comrades lived and laughed and that fought beside them. We are not doing that no matter how much people "thank them for their service".

Those who died fighting in World War II were fighting because the United States was savagely attacked. Those who fought in Korea were fighting because that nation was attacked. Since then, all that have died were killed for imperial interests. The Gulf War, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq and Afghanistan and the other operations of this "War on Terror" have no other purpose than to protect US economic interests and to enrich the coffers of the Military Industrial Complex that should have been dismantled when the "Cold War" ended.

The Veterans that died died for a foreign policy that is bent on preserving the commercial and strategic aims of the corporate interests that control the Presidency, the Congress and the military. The Veterans come home to inadequate health care (witness the current VA scandal), inadequate mental health care and inadequate opportunities in the workplace. We have Vietnam. Iraq War and Afghanistan Veterans sleeping in the woods.

How do I know this? I know this because I was a Veterans Representative in Port Charlotte Florida and we conducted a "Stand-Down" where we offered a doctors check-up. a dental check-up, blankets, boots and clothes for homeless Veterans. People told me that in Port Charlotte they didn't have homeless Veterans but after prodding they staged the "Stand-Down". Over 150 homeless Veterans came out of the woods. This was in 2004.

Why do Veterans have such a hard time coping with life as a civilian? Could it be that they witnessed and participated in things that were so terrible and awful that they can't cope with it? One can understand that they faced the horrors of war but one has a hard time understanding the reason for putting them through it in the first place. I'm sure that they have a hard time justifying the things they have seen and done. Getting back to my father, he could justify his combat in Okinawa, his country was attacked. What justification do these other Veterans have?

What I'm trying to say in this piece is that the next time you participate in Memorial Day activities or "thank them for their service", think about why so many had to die and what was the reason for their deaths? Also think of the homeless Veterans on the streets and in the woods that are also causalities of war. It just isn't enough to thank them and glorify their service. We must care for them both physically and mentally. We as a nation are responsible for sending them. We have let this government run amok. We should have learned after Vietnam and changed it then.

The truth is, we may not be able to change our government at this present time, the moneyed interests and the corporations seem to have full control, but we can change the way the survivors of their continuing wars are treated. That is the way we honor the dead. Flying a flag and having a barbecue is only part of what we should be doing. We should be reflecting on why we should sacrifice good people to wars in the first place.


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