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How a culture treats their warriors says a lot.  In America, it’s been a love-hate-neglect relationship.  Consider the contrast of praise for the “Greatest Generation” with the founders of the Peace Movement spitting on “baby killers” during Vietnam.  Only after 9-11 have we come to be able to separate our feelings on war from our respect for those who fight.

It’s an intellectually awkward proposition during a time without the draft, being hard to consider a soldier an unwilling combatant.  But we don’t blame them, and wish them safely home either way.  My guess is that common sentiment is always little more than herd mentality, and our praise for our military could shift again at any time.  If you disagree, consider how many flags flew over porches the days before and after that fateful September morning.  We could have cared less about what was going on in Europe before that December morning in the Pacific nearly 60 years earlier.  Human nature doesn’t change, only the number of stars.

But all vets of all wars, however differently they have been treated, have one thing in common — their service.  They could be a sniper in the line of fire in Afghanistan, a mechanic at an Air Force base in Germany, or a “weekend warrior” at Fort Drum stateside.  They may have joined for education benefits, family tradition, or a belief in a cause called America.  The common thread of such uniforms is the willingness to sacrifice if necessary.  George Orwell says it bluntly, but best:

“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

And many paid dearly more than they received in compensation.  Perhaps those who return give more than those who do not, with a lifetime of physical and psychological challenges.  And yet they pay taxes, as if they owe us anything.  The majority of homeless in our area are Veterans and the programs to help them — being bureaucratic by nature — are doing what they can with sometimes embarrassingly limited resources.

I work with vets.  Among them are some of the most fascinating life stories I’ve heard.  Two men had been lifelong friends, having met in a Japanese POW camp.  A younger man was allegedly experimented on with drugs at Paris Island.  But the one I will never forget is the gentleman who was captured after his plane was downed over German-occupied territory.  He denied himself the status of hero on the grounds he was drafted, and I had to make it clear otherwise.  After all, he was still on the team that saved the effin’ world.

I have a friend (who served in Desert Storm) who advocates the idea that only people who serve in the military should be allowed to vote.  In some existing countries and science fiction futures, it is a requirement of citizenship.  I would never go that far, but think we ought to collectively support veterans as our most cherished elders.  They risked things for us that we would not risk for ourselves.

I’m not the type to jump on the government bandwagon to address this, though.  The government is responsible for who and where our warriors fight, which ought to be questioned and criticized as necessary.  But the warriors are of The People in the end, pawns of politics, but kings in our community.  I say what we as a people show them be seen as respect, not charity, as the latter is a gift and the former is giving what is righfully due.

And if we can’t personally do something more concrete than thanks and presence at events honoring veterans, we can at least teach our children to stand up a little straighter in the presence of a uniform, not because it represents authority, but represents non-reimbursable sacrifice.