I had the opportunity to attend an author event at the Warrior Café on the campus of Bethesda Naval Hospital last week, and want to share something I heard that has stuck with me.
A presentation was made by James Wright, Dartmouth President Emeritus and author of “Those Who Have Borne the Battle” (PublicAffairs 2012). To paraphrase, he referenced the “Occupy” movement, which is based on the complaint that 99% of American workers sacrifice to pay taxes while financial wealth is enjoyed by only 1% of the population. Wright observed that these numbers could be reversed when looking at our voluntary Armed Forces, in which less than 1% of US citizens serve and sacrifice for the well being of the other 99%.
As I absorbed this, I looked around me at the young men – really young; boys, really – in wheelchairs. Most were double amputees, above the knee. And, again, as mentioned in my recent posting about the National Airport experience, I was struck by the detachment of most American citizens to the wrath of Iraq and Afghanistan. Casualties were low compared to previous wars. News coverage of combat injury tends to focus on the scary specter of PTSD. And yet, there I sat, in a suburb of Washington, DC, among a group of kids without legs.
There is nothing okay about this picture. There is especially nothing okay with how few Americans have seen it. I’ve written that it is the civilian American’s duty to bear witness to the ravages of these recent wars and yet, how many have? Surely more will have the chance, as soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines leave military service and return to their hometowns across the country. How will their sacrifice be received? With pity? Avoidance? Denial?
Something else Dr. Wright said in passing stayed with me as well. He commented that the individuals in the room have probably heard themselves called heroes. But, he said, you don’t feel like heroes; you’ve seen real heroes and know what that looks like.
All these kids did – and this is me speaking now, not Dr. Wright – was to do their jobs as they had pledged to do. And for that they lost their limbs, ending their military careers before they’d barely begun, and returned to their homeland to face the lifetime ahead of them. We have got to do better than wave a flag and promise to get them jobs. We civilians have got to walk this with them however we can, by volunteering at medical facilities or otherwise sacrificing some small measure of our time, talents and treasures.
Veteran unemployment is high, yes, and it is impersonal. Easy to detach from, just a number we don’t have to think about too hard because other people are working on it. But Veteran disability, depression, suicide…these things are personal and we have a moral obligation to work them – each and every one of us in our own way.
Fellow civilian, as one of the 99% whose well-being was paid for with real arms, legs, lives, what will be your personal contribution to the healing that must now take place?
Emily King is Vice President of Military Transitions at The Buller Group, and author of "Field Tested: Recruiting, Managing & Retaining Veterans" (AMACOM 2012). She created the Certified Veteran Recruiter (CVR) Program.