Friday, January 10, 2014

What does it mean to support the troops?

If you randomly polled a hundred folks across the Panhandle, asking whether they support the troops, I’d be surprised if you didn’t find that all 100 answered yes. If you did the same poll across the nation, I think you’d get pretty darn close to 100 percent affirmative answers. A tiny minority would say no, probably, but I’m thinking 99 percent would unhesitatingly reply that yes, they support the troops.

What if you changed the question? What if you asked, “what does it mean to support the troops?”

That’s a different kettle of fish.

I’m not going to rah-rah you and tell you the answer. It’s something everyone has to figure out for themselves. I do suspect, though, that not many of my friends and neighbors have spent much time thinking about the question. I think it’s an important question for all Americans to consider, which is why I’m writing this piece. Why now? Why here? Let me share a couple of anecdotes and a story.

I have a cartoon stuck on the bulletin board in my office (I serve as Kimball County’s part-time Veterans Service Officer; my office is in the courthouse). It’s from a cartoon series called “Broadsides” which runs in the Military Times family of newspapers. The cartoon panel depicts a civilian human resources director sitting at a desk, examining a sheaf of paper. In front of the desk is a man in civilian attire with a military haircut and a USMC tattoo on his arm. The HRD is apparently interviewing the tattooed man. “Killed bad guys from 1982-2012,” he says. “Just a wild guess, but is this your first resume Mr. Clark?”

That cartoon has a lot of depth, a lot of layers. It’s clearly amusing. A civilian can see himself in the HRD’s position, trying to figure the veteran out. But The civilian can’t see himself in the shoes of the former marine. There are levels of that cartoon that can’t be grasped by anyone who hasn’t shared the experience of military service. I could describe them, but my description would have little meaning to anyone lacking the veteran’s perspective. It’s interesting to think about. The veteran has been a civilian, but the civilian has never been a soldier. There’s a disconnect there.

Another anecdote, from a slightly different perspective: You’ve probably all seen the trailers for the forthcoming movie “Lone Survivor.” The movie is based on the book written by Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell. I watched a book signing event featuring Luttrell when his book first came out several years ago. During the question and answer session after his talk, someone in the audience asked, “what can we civilians do to support the troops?”

“Pick up a rifle, man,” said Luttrell, Pick up a rifle.”

I’m not suggesting, and neither, I think, was Luttrell, that to support the troops you need to join the military and come to blows with the enemy on the battlefield. What I’m saying is simply this. If you think it’s important to support the troops, and if you have a desire to find a way to support the troops, you need to do a lot of thinking about what it all means.

Unless you’ve served, you’ll never be able to understand the question from the soldier’s perspective. If you’re serious about supporting the troops, you need to understand that that perspective exists. You need to think about the fact that you don’t – and can’t – understand the soldier’s perspective, and integrate that knowledge into your reasoning when you try to figure out what supporting the troops means. If you get to that point, you’ll be able to figure out a sensible and reasoned approach to deciding whether it makes sense for you to provide that support.

In other words, there may be a difference between what you know and what you think you know. Hmm. Where have I heard that before?

Now here’s a short story.

On Saturday afternoon I got a call about a veteran who was hitchhiking and had run out of money. The temperature was already tumbling and was forecast to hit 10 below overnight. Not a good night to be spending along the interstate.

I was irritated when I got the call. Saturday was the first day of wildcard weekend and I’d worked hard to arrange my schedule so I could watch the games.

But duty is duty. Irritated is emotion. Two different things. I drove out and contacted the veteran, got him in my pickup, and started calling around to see how we could help him. As I called he told me a little bit about himself. He’s 23 and got out of the Army six months ago. He spent most of the last three years in Afghanistan. He’s seen serious combat. He planned to reenlist but manpower cuts made that impossible. He worked at a job in New Jersey for a while but got into some kind of trouble and wound up in jail. He was hitching to Boise where a sister lives and he has a line on a job. It took a lot of questioning to get those details out of him. He was very reserved, very closed off.

I finally broke through the layers of answering machines and VA bureaucracy and made arrangements for the veteran to spend the night in a shelter in Cheyenne. Getting him there was the trick. I decided to break a local guideline and drive him myself (and got politely chewed out for breaking the guideline). I got him to the shelter and made sure he got checked in. I left him with my card and told him to call if he needed anything and to let me know he got to Boise okay. I don’t expect to hear from him.

The world isn’t as clear-cut and easy to understand as we’d like it to be. Supporting the troops sounds like a great idea, and one most of us are instinctively “for.” But how do you support a kid like my hitchhiking vet?

I don’t have the answer. There isn’t one. Not an easy, one-size-fits-all solution. In this country, where we’re all sovereign citizens, we have to figure those things out for ourselves.

There's no easy button for the important stuff.