27 May 2013

Last May, I shared a long plane ride with an army colonel. I got off that plane with my eyes radically opened on a lot of issues. 

My Colonel had that ramrod straight, regal bearing of military royalty and piercing blue eyes and an engaging smile. He’d been in the army all his professional life, starting as a helicopter pilot. It seemed clear that he was on his way to General. 

It was one of those flights where I planned to sleep, having gotten up very, very early for the first leg of my journey, but he sat down beside me on my second flight and even before take-off we were talking and we never stopped.  For some reason we started talking about Amendment One, the ballot initiative to alter North Carolina’s Constitution to define marriage as only between a man and a woman. It had passed the day before and I was still upset about it.

I probably brought up how mad I was about its passage. My Colonel told me he was a born-again Christian with eight daughters. And, then, he blew me away. For much of the rest of the trip, we talked about freedoms. He never told me how he would have voted on Amendment One (He’d kept his registration in his home state since he moved around so much, but I have a very real feeling that despite his personal feelings, he would have voted against it since he so strongly supported civil rights and freedoms). We  talked a lot about gays in the military, including the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and he said he had no issue with it whatsoever. No one under his command had. In fact, he said the only problem, in a hysterical scene straight out of “M*A*S*H,” was that one of his subordinates was a cross dresser who kept wearing outfits so flamboyant that they were distracting his fellow soldiers.  

My  little liberal bleeding heart self kept throwing arguments at him about many different military issues that I had no real direct knowledge of and My Colonel, who had fought in both Afghanistan and Iraq, told me in a completely non-patronizing way what his experience had been like to actually deal with the Afghanis on the ground or what his experience was when he’d been in command in other countries and why he disagreed with me...or agreed with me on a surprising number of points. 

We talked a lot about “Restrepo,” a riveting and haunting 2010 documentary Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington made about a U.S. Army outpost in Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley. He hadn’t seen the movie, which I haven’t stopped talking about since I saw it at Sundance that year, but he was a big fan of Junger’s book, “War,” about the experience. (I immediately read it. It is tremendous and enlightening in a way that movie isn’t given the film’s time constraints).

The daily depictions of a soldier’s life in Afghanistan were disturbing enough, but what really stuck with me—and still has— about “Restrepo” and “War”  were the interviews with the soldiers who survived. Many were babies straight out of high school when they went away and babies when they returned, but they were now babies with unending nightmares. They couldn’t sleep or adjust to civilian life. Many of them re-enlisted not because they wanted to go back into battle, but because they didn’t know how to just be in this world where they weren’t sure if anyone had their back. You may hate the guy in the cot beside you, but the movie and book made clear that when lives are on the line, that didn’t matter: you took care of each other and there were rules that left out any of life's messy ambiguities. My Colonel talked about that and what it meant to truly be a leader of men and women. 

It was an engaging push and pull for the entire three-hour flight and a badly-needed reminder that we can disagree about issues and still have civil conversations about them and talk out loud about how we feel... And on this Memorial Day, I remember that the ability to do so is one of the many rights that soldiers have fought so hard to protect. 

My Colonel, whose name I’m not mentioning to protect his privacy, and I have kept in touch since that day. Despite his extremely busy schedule, he even spoke at the retirement community where my father lives since I knew all the vets would love him. He’d wanted to bring his wife and children, but she, also a former soldier, is extremely active in working with the soldiers and their spouses, and, sadly, there had been a soldier suicide that week on the base and she was counseling the family. 

As you know, the number of suicides by soldiers has reached what the military calls epidemic proportions. Last year, more soldiers on active duty killed themselves than were killed in combat. At least 349 soldier killed themselves, the most since the Pentagon began publicly releasing the number 10 years ago. 

All weekend long, I’ve been donating to causes that support war veterans in honor of Memorial Day. There are so many great organizations out there trying to bridge the gap between the services an overworked Veterans Administration provides and the real help these men and women desperately need. Even with all these organizations, way too many veterans are falling through the cracks and not having their basic needs met. And many of the cracks are caused by ridiculous bureaucratic snafus that have absolutely devastating results.

Today’s $10 goes to Operation Homefront, an all-encompassing veterans organization that does everything from help veterans move, find auto repairs, get food, financial assistance, vision care and even purchase a home.  

If you’re looking for an organization that lets you see the direct results of your giving, look no further. Under its Current Needs heading, Operation Homefront runs appeals for specific soldiers. For example, today there are listings to:

  • Help an injured Iraqi war vet who, through a clerical error, has been unable to collect unemployment and other benefits. He is facing losing his apartment and his car. He needs $2,770 while the issue is resolved. 

  • Another vet who is in college had to take a break for surgery for his combat injuries and lost his education benefits while recovering and he and his 3 children are now at risk of losing their home. He needs $1,235.

       *This medical retiree is waiting for his VA benefits to kick in, but that takes                     months and while he is searching for a job, his family needs help with food and auto insurance. He needs $740.

It’s staggering that these men and women who have served this country are struggling to keep their cars running and a roof over their heads... and that the difference between having a home and becoming homeless is only a few hundred dollars. Our country ought to be ashamed. They deserve better. We as a country can and must do better. 

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