In many respects, every day is Veterans Day for me. By virtue of my chosen profession, I have spent the majority of my waking hours over the past 17 years with former soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen. By and large, they are a respectable, salt-of-the-earth lot, as good as they come.
It’s an honor to care for them each day, and since I never served in the military myself, I’ve come to think of it as a way of giving back to my country a little bit of what it has given me. But I’ve formed a few impressions about the military and war over the years, and perhaps today is as good a day as any to share some of them with you.
When I started out, I counted a few genuine doughboys among my patients, innocents who were once pretty, dapper boys scrambling off “Over There” to seek their adventure in “The War to End All Wars.” The young Yanks returned, mud-caked men, deflowered and broken in the sludgy trenches of Western Europe in a war that failed to fulfill it’s lofty promise.
They’re all gone now, and the World War II and Korea vets are quickly following them. The former have probably received the most praise and positive press (who wouldn’t want to be referred to as “The Greatest Generation?), but sometimes I have to look deep into the chart to find out that a veteran was in Korea. It’s easier, really, to simply look at their hands. The missing fingers, broken off by frostbite, are a dead giveaway.
Many Vietnam veterans carry a chip on their soldiers. They have a reputation for being loud, demanding, and a little more “messed up.” It’s really not hard to see why. World War II vets gained a clear cut victory, complete with official treaties of surrender, and returned home to a hero’s welcome. But their sons and daughters died in massive numbers for various Heartbreak Hills and other pieces of real estate with names too difficult to pronounce which, for a brief moment in time anyway, seemed to have some grand strategic significance. There were no ticker tape parades waiting for them even if they did manage to make it out of there alive. They were as likely to be greeted with spittle and jeers at the airport as they were a banner and cheers.
And now, in increasing numbers, I’m seeing a new generation of veterans cycle through, some the same age or even younger than my own sons. And here’s what’s different: While it’s relatively rare to see a World War II vet with missing limbs (most of them would have died on the battlefield from massive blood loss), modern military medicine, with its advanced technology and efficiency, is saving an increasing number of soldiers with severe injuries.
As a result, I’m seeing a steady flow of young men in their early 20s who are missing both arms or legs and whose skin is pockmarked with the scars created by the bolts and nails from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The percussive force of those dirty bombs is just as bad, and those severely affected with traumatic brain injury have a great deal of difficulty thinking and seeing straight. It is one of the great ironies of my life that the more wars we fight, the more secure my job becomes.
But the Millennials who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan differ in another very important respect as well: They’re eager to move on. Young men in wheelchairs and those learning to walk on their new space-age prosthetic legs are chomping at the bit to get on with their lives because the past is past and that’s just the way they roll. They’re going back to school (and helping them to see the PowerPoint slides from the back of the classroom is where I come in), planning their careers, marrying, and learning how to make love again with their war-scarred bodies.
I doubt that 30 or 40 years from now that they’ll be wearing patch-festooned vests and colorful berets commemorating their participation in some far off, nearly forgotten war. When they look back on the main events of their lives, I imagine that most of them will not see their military service as the high-water mark because they will have done too much good living since. This generation strikes me as being a little less romantic about war than previous ones. I think that all in all this is a good, and hopeful, thing.
I think we would all do well, on this day when we honor those who have served and sacrificed, to be a little less starry-eyed about all this fighting. I’m enough of a realist to know that sometimes there is simply no choice, but it seems to me that we often enter into our wars much too eagerly and continue them much too long. On a day when we watch parades and are quick to spout a warm, fuzzy bromide, it is good to remember what writer Rick Bragg said about his own Korean War vet father, that he was a boy whose “thin blood was rearranged.” I can’t think of a better way of putting it than that.
My modest Veterans Day proposal is that every President who decides that a war is just and necessary and every politician who votes for one should be required to offer up a son, daughter, grandchild, niece or nephew for that particular “righteous cause.” It used to be that way, that the sons and daughters of the powerful would serve too. But by and large we fight our wars on the backs of children of lesser privilege, those who turn to the military for opportunity and as a way out of the limitations of their particular hamlet or hood.
A policy like that wouldn’t put an end to war, but it would give us more pause before we enter into one. Of course, it’ll never happen, because the rich and powerful among us have always looked after their own and always will.
Well, that’s my two cents on the subject. This morning I’ll be taking care of myself, going to my doctor for my annual physical and to my dentist to have my teeth cleaned. I’ll spend the balance of the day reading or maybe taking in a movie, trying to forget about some of the things that I’ve heard and seen over the past 17 years. And then tomorrow, I’ll get up, go to work, and start Veterans Day all over again.