Thirteen Years After 9-11-01, How Are We Supporting Our Troops?

This is what lower Manhattan looked like at 8:30 am on September 11, 2001
This is what lower Manhattan looked like at 8:30 am on September 11, 2001

Thirteen years ago, I was working for a travel company whose corporate culture trended heavily toward Nordic beauty standards and J Crew clothing — I didn’t exactly fit in. I had a nemesis coworker who was fond of practical jokes, so when she said that someone had just driven a plane into the Twin Towers I thought she was kidding. It became apparent very quickly that she wasn’t. I will always remember the tide of horror, sadness, and fear that rose in my chest as I stood with coworkers around a TV screen and watched the first tower come down. It was a distant precursor to what I would feel in April 2013 when two brothers set off homemade bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Both of these events make me contemplate rage. The rage of the men who hijacked those plans devoured their own lives. It devoured the lives of thousands of other people, too. Their rage took a symbol of Western hegemony — an airliner full of jet fuel at the start of a 3,000-mile journey — and turned it into a weapon used to destroy a symbol of Western capitalism. Their rage melted steel, one of the strongest building materials known to humankind. It killed the people in the planes, the WTC, and the Pentagon — some more innocent than others, but all people whose lives mattered.

In the wake of 9-11, Americans felt rage, too. Our rage (and the acts that caused it) sparked a war that is still being waged 13 years after the Towers went down. It bombed Afghanistan back into the stone age — Afghanistan, a failed state in the grips of a totalitarian regime, and one, I might add, which the US had decided to ignore up until 9-11, in spite of the horrific stories coming out about the Taliban’s treatment of women in particular, but also men who committed the blasphemous acts of shaving their faces and listening to music. It justified the invasion of Iraq two years later, leading to the deaths of more American soldiers than 9-11 did Americans not to mention hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. It drove Congress to pass the Patriot Act, a vile piece of legislation that erodes the civil rights and invades the privacy of American citizens — the very people it was designed to protect. It justifies the use of black sites around the world and the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay to torture people who may or may not be affiliated with our enemies — who can really say, because there’s no due process and no transparency. It sparked a conflagration of hate crimes against American Muslims who abhor the actions of Al Qaeda the same way most Christians abhor the actions of the KKK — and this in a country that prides itself on freedom of religion, no less. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

photograph of the the Lower Manhattan skyline
This is what Lower Manhattan looks like today

Because we don’t have a draft, American rage (and the very justifiable fear underneath it) also means that our country continues to rely on the other 1% — the 1% of our nation serving in the Armed Forces — to wage war halfway across the globe. My partner is a veteran of the current conflict, an infantry man who left the service to become a nurse practitioner after his deployment to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He has spoken at length with me about his experience in the Army and what it was like to return to civilian life afterward: about the cashier at Barnes & Noble who asked him if he tortured people, about the fellow nursing student who suggested that veterans didn’t deserve PTSD treatment because they chose to sign up for military service. He is proud to have gone on two deployments, and he does not consider himself a victim. I am continually impressed with his clear-eyed view of the benefits and costs of his time in the Army. I’ve learned a great deal about his experience as soldier and a veteran while also benefiting from his love, his loyalty, and a level of emotional intelligence I’ve never experienced with any other partner — male or female.

I’m not a pacifist. I’ve supported troops on deployment not by sticking a yellow ribbon on my car but by writing them letters once a week and sending them monthly care packages until they were back in the United States. One or two of them wrote back to thank me, but that’s not why I did it. I did it partly because I wanted to make some kind of a connection with the kind of person most Americans — and especially Americans like me, who live in deep-blue-state territory and have degrees from colleges with very little ROTC presence — never get to meet. I’ve done some reading about treatment for veterans with PTSD, and was struck by the statistics that show PTSD rates are much higher for soldiers sent to fight overseas than those defending their home territory.

I say all of this not because I think it gives me the ability to speak for soldiers, sailors, air(wo)men, marines, or military families who have endured repeated deployments. I say it because I want you to know that when I say that what I say about the Long War we have been fighting for thirteen years, I’m not some trustafarian from Williamsburg parroting the party line. I’m saying it as a result of many hours of thinking about what war is, what it’s good for, and what it’s not good for. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “to everything there is a season… a time to kill, and a time to heal.”

This is what I want to say: this war is not helping us. It is not making America more free, more prosperous, or more secure. It may have helped us gain a foothold in the Middle East, which helps our leaders further their strategic agenda. But it has plunged our country into debt and distracted us all from the increasing income gap (not to mention the shitty regulations that allowed the Great Recession that started in 2008) and the subsequent erosion of the American Dream. And on top of all that, it is creating a new generation of veterans, many of them men and women scarred by their experiences on deployment. Worse yet, most Americans don’t share in the experience of military servicepeople and their families. We shout “support our troops!” and “war is evil!” without ever thinking about the human beings who put themselves in harm’s way. Politicians and bloggers alike — on the Right AND the LEFT — treat military families not as people to be treated with dignity and respect but as object lessons to further their own arguments and political agendas.

Back in 2008 or so, I made what I thought was a fairly innocuous comment on the American Soldiers page on Facebook. Within the course of a few hours, my words somehow got misintepreted and twisted to such a degree that the page moderator removed my original post. All that was left when I logged in again were comments like “Support our troops!”, “Thank you for your service!”, and “This is to all ASSHOLES: fuck off and die.”

I guess I was an asshole for saying that I was grateful for your service, but I wish that my country did a better job of taking care of you once your term of service was completed. I guess I was an asshole for pointing out the difficulty many veterans have getting access to treatment for maladies associated with PTSD — maladies I am intimately familiar with, seeing as how I’m a card-carrying member of the PTSD-Having Society of America. I guess I was an asshole for expressing compassion for — to paraphrase the most reasonable response to my original post — Warriors Who Take Care of Our Own.

My partner provides health care to veterans. Every day, he sees people in dire straights, many of whom have service-connected disabilities. Some of them are old men who served in WWII. Some of them are angry Vietnam Vets (well, they’re less angry than they were 30 years ago). And more and more of them are veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. While Congress continues to pump money into the DOD, it fails to fund a system that’s struggling under the weight of the growing number of veterans who were promised benefits and care once they completed their tours of duty and rejoined civil society. The scandal in Phoenix was an example of some bad decisions made by people who weren’t given the resources adequate to their task (I’m happy to report that the Boston VA system has passed post-scandal inspections with flying colors). But instead of trying to fix the VA system, Congress used it as an excuse to continue its agenda of privatization — an agenda that, IMHO, is more about ideology than what might actually work best for our veterans.

I think our veterans deserve better than that. They deserve to be greeted back into civil society not only with empty thanks, but also with the honest to goodness tools they need to make that transition. And they deserve to stop shouldering the burden of this Long War alone.

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