war on the rocks

It’s More Than One Day A Year

November 11, 2014

Schultz, Howard and Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. For Love of Country: What Our Veterans Can Teach Us About Citizenship, Heroism, and Sacrifice. Alfred A. Knopf. 2014

 

“Thank you for your service” comes across the lips of the guy in line at the airport when he notices my ball cap from one of the ships on which I served or stations I was based, or some other mark that identifies me as a veteran. My response is typically a “you’re welcome” and that it was my pleasure to wear our nation’s uniform. A somewhat mechanical response to a somewhat mechanical question…

Why anyone decides to enlist in the military varies widely, dependent on a range of factors from current events to an enlistee’s personal circumstances. For me, after reading an article about the Navy’s photography school and a visit by the Navy recruiter to my high school, I signed up. Joining seemed like a good idea — an opportunity to go to photography school and use the GI Bill to pay for college after my enlistment was up. It was peacetime, the Vietnam War had ended and the world seemed safe. That plan changed slightly: I never did make it to photography school, and I ended up reenlisting enough times to earn a row of gold service stripes on the lower sleeve of my dress blues (but I did eventually use my GI Bill).

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks Coffee, and Rajvi Chandrasekaran, Washington Post editor and author of two books on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, collaborated to tell the many stories of the current generation of Americans that joined the military at a time of war, when most were certain to fight in one or both of our country’s recent wars.

The book is divided into two parts. In the first, the authors tell the stories of valor of the men and women on the battlefields, some of whom made the supreme sacrifice. Others returned to years of recuperation, learning how to live without the arms, legs, and eyes that they possessed when they hopped on a plane dressed in cammies, the U.S. flag on their shoulder, with a ton of gear they likely would never use to fight for their nation. Many also suffered from the invisible wounds of traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress that only emerged when they returned home.

The current wars are different from those of the past. Medical airlifts quickly transported the wounded to battlefield medical stations and then returned the injured to U.S. medical care in Germany and the U.S. The book tells the story of Navy Lt. Commander Bill Krissoff who, with the help of President George W. Bush, joined the Navy as a 62-year-old orthopedic surgeon after his son Nate was killed in Western Iraq. Typically, the doctors and corpsman treated wounded servicemembers that they would never see again. But back home, Dr. Kirssoff looked up a Navy hospital corpsman, a triple amputee that he had treated. The corpsman described the “Doc” saying, “You can be a war hero, even if you never fired a weapon in combat. What he did — now that’s uncommon valor.”

The second part of the book examines the question of what happens when veterans come home. The families of veterans did not sign up for the life they would lead. Many of the young couples just beginning their lives together instead faced the challenges associated with both visible and invisible wounds of combat. The spouses of these heroes unquestionably met the challenge of their new lives, helping them through rehabilitation, assisting them with the simple tasks that so many had to relearn, and organizing groups that gave the caregivers a break away from the hospital beds and rehab centers. Jess Klein the wife of Capt. Edward “Flip” Klein, a soldier injured in Afghanistan, joined The Yellow Ribbon Fund to help other families after her husband was on the road to recovery. One wife after an event said, “I had forgotten what fun was!”

Something positive has to come from this. People have been so good to us. Now we have to make it better for some else.  —Jesse Klein wife of Captain Flip Klein.

Many sons and daughters have had to learn how to go to sleep crying because they knew their fathers or mothers would not be coming home. These children, though, have accepted the responsibility bestowed on them with awe-inspiring courage. The authors describe Beau Dolan, the son of a naval officer killed in the Pentagon on 9/11. Instead of heading off on vacation after college graduation Dolan served as a mentor at the annual Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors or “TAPS” Good Grief Camp. Dolan did not want being a survivor to “define his life.” Instead he shared his experience with two young brothers that recently lost their father. He volunteered as a mentor because “[it’s a] Pay-it forward kind of deal. I went through it and I‘d like to help other kids…”

War unquestionably changes a person. But it doesn’t mean it makes you dysfunctional. Our veterans are loyal, easily trained, accustomed to being members of a team — and they are mature. They have a foundation of character and experience that any business would want to build upon.  –Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

The military experiences have had an additional and less obvious positive effect in communities throughout America. As towns faced natural disasters, a group of veterans formed Team Rubicon, which helped, for instance, after towns in Middle America were ransacked by tornados, destroying homes and lives. Using the skills learned in the military, these veterans established teams that mirrored military squads, organized a headquarters, and went about helping the survivors. They worked tirelessly to repair the destruction and return family heirlooms, including, in one instance, a deceased veteran’s American flag to a widow.

The stories of valor in the book go on and on…and among many of us that served, they are the tip of the iceberg of the heroism seen on the battlefield, the therapy rooms of our veteran and military hospitals, and the classrooms where veterans use their experience to teach some of the most at risk young students. Additionally, combat veterans serve the drill fields and training centers where they train a new generation to step into their boots. Many others are still at the “tip of the spear,” standing watch, fighting alongside their brothers and sisters to defend this country of ours.

As we celebrate one of the nation’s most important days — Veterans Day — awareness of remarkable courage will rise. We will see more ads on TV for organizations that work on behalf of veterans, restaurants will serve special meals for vets, and yes, many will hear some man or women say to them, “thanks for your service.” But this isn’t enough. Only 1% percent of America has served since 9/11, meaning that about 5% of Americans have a family member that has served. “Most Americans have no skin in the game,” and as a nation, we need to do more. “They stepped up. Now it is our turn.” This important book will help to make that happen,

“To do right by our veterans — to recognize their value to our society and fulfill our solemn obligations to those who volunteered to protect the rest of us — we first have to understand what they have accomplished and what they offer our nation”  —Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

 

David A. Mattingly is retired from the U.S. Navy as a Master Chief Petty Officer and is now a consultant on National Security issues.