America is built upon a robust reverence for our military and veterans, so it’s not surprising that they’ve become a prop of choice in an increasingly fractured political landscape. Whether it’s debating the patriotism of NFL players who kneel during the National Anthem, the constitutionality of banning transgender people from service or the limits of defense spending, every issue ricochets throughout social media as one that attacks our military and veterans. These loaded arguments trivialize our vets, turning them into sound bytes and dramatically missing the point of the phrase “support our troops.” Instead of focusing on who is supposedly disrespecting vets, we need to focus on how we can respect our veterans better. It starts with learning from their stories. What can we learn? A lot.
Hope may not be a word that is associated with the military, but it is embedded in our military’s DNA. Hope sustained our Vietnam prisoners of war under the most excruciating circumstances in the “Hanoi Hilton,” “the Zoo” and “Alcatraz.” One such prisoner was Commander Everett Alvarez, Jr., one of the longest serving POWs in American history who spent more than eight years in captivity while sustaining beatings and mind-numbing deprivation. Alvarez was also the grandson of Mexican immigrants, and his survival is emblematic of the hope his family had to build a better life in the United States.
Here at home, hope sustains our wounded vets as they endure endless hours of rehab. My dad is one of those vets. A double amputee who was blinded in combat during World War II, his sense of hope has pulled him through multiple near-death experiences and the subsequent stultifying attitude of low expectations this country greeted him with upon his return.
In a larger sense, being ambassadors of hope in a ravaged world is what our vets have always represented. Without our veterans, hundreds of millions, from those enslaved by the Nazis and Communists to the present day Yazidis on Mount Sinjar or Afghan women and girls terrorized by ISIS, would have lost all hope. Through our vets, such victims have been rescued from psychotic tyrants who shot, gassed, poisoned, radiated, starved, tortured, raped and imprisoned the most vulnerable. If I could design a bumper sticker, it would read, “Got hope? Thank a vet.”
We spend wads of cash on all things military—movies, books, photographs—but we learn little from their fundamental theme.
Translating that history into our present discourse means engaging the hopes of those around us—our fellow citizens. It means recognizing our collective hope for stable lives and economic security while rescuing those who feel isolated. If we need examples of how to do so, we should look to our vets.
Like hope, persistence pervades our veterans’ stories. Without persistence, you can’t survive the rigors of basic training, Ranger school, BUD/S for SEALs, flight training, short dwell, back-to-back deployments and every other demand of military service. Nor would you learn to use a prosthetic arm or prosthetic leg or endure the horrors of PTSD on a day-by-day basis. If you weren’t persistent, you wouldn’t be a vet. And yet, persistence seems increasingly absent in a world dominated by instant gratification. This absence contaminates our discourse. It’s easier to withdraw into ideological camps and lob in-your-face social media salvos at each other rather than persistently engage in conversation to find a solution.
Perhaps most important, we should honor our vets by recognizing their core: camaraderie. There’s a good reason for that; if you don’t take care of each other, you’ll end up dead. It’s not a synthetic camaraderie of shared appearances or mindsets. It’s a deeper kind of devotion, void of pretense or pre-condition. It’s simple notion that “We’re going to get through this together,” and it’s hardwired in our vets.
We spend wads of cash on all things military—movies, books, photographs—but we learn little from their fundamental theme: authentic camaraderie. We watch American Sniper, but we then trash our fellow citizens on Twitter for having civic concerns, because present discourse has become a civility-free zone. Alternatively, those who would denigrate American Sniper and similar films as “propagandistic pap” miss the point. To paraphrase General Patton, “An army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps and fights as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap.” Our veterans understood that a long time ago. It’s a perspective we could all use.
The story of the U.S. Navy’s first African American Naval Aviator, Jesse L. Brown, illustrates my point. On December 4, 1950, Brown was flying close air support over North Korea. Brown grew up in Mississippi, the epicenter of American racism where he could be lynched by any white person having a bad day. One of his white flight instructors reportedly told him, “Before I’ll let you become a Navy pilot, I’ll crash this damn plane and die with your black ass.” Yet Brown persisted. Now he was trying to save thousands of Marines and soldiers encircled by more than 100,000 Chinese near the Chosin Reservoir. Brown’s wingman was Lieutenant (jg) Tom Hudner, a white guy from a wealthy Massachusetts family—a universe far apart from Brown’s. Brown’s plane was hit and it crashed. He became trapped by the wreckage. Desperate to rescue his lead, Hudner deliberately crash-landed his own plane to try to free Brown.
Think about it: crash-landing your plane in North Korea to rescue someone you could never be seen with back home. Their story is relevant for all of us today. It’s one of hope, perseverance and unbreakable camaraderie. Let’s lower the noise and honor our veterans by observing these values on Veteran’s Day.
Harry E. Wedewer is a retired U.S. Navy Commander and author of The Bravest Guy: A True Story Of Overcoming Seemingly Impossible Odds about his father’s combat service in World War II and subsequent career as a state and national leader in assisting those with vision loss.