The title of this post probably invokes a memory of a Vietnam Veteran returning home from the horrors of death, chaos, and war only to be spat on and called a “baby-killer.” This is not the type of Veteran shaming I’m referring to. I’m referring to the act of Veterans shaming civilians for their life choices. I must admit I have been a perpetrator of this very act and it needs to end immediately. This is an act I will not condone when committed by myself or my fellow veterans at a time when this nation does not need another reason to find cause for division.
I hear it time and time again. These civilians don’t understand. They’re soft. They have no idea how good they have it. I can’t believe what a bunch of weak excuses for human beings they all are. To quote Marcus Aurelius, “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be, be one.” This act of veteran shaming is a side effect of veteran entitlement and is generally echoed by a comment of “don’t thank me for my service.” I for one am sick and tired of seeing veterans carrying themselves in such a way just because they have taken their uniform off and put on their “I served” ball cap.
Moreover, I would argue this very sense of entitlement so common in so many of my veteran brothers and sisters is the very reason for our extremely high veteran suicide rate and our inability to re-integrate into the society we left behind. Here are some hard words I think a lot of Veterans need to hear.
Yes you served your time. You sacrificed by missing holidays, birthdays, family gatherings, the birth of your first born, the funerals of friends, the lists go on and on. You spent nights on watch. You stood on the wall and beat back the wolves from the door. Thank you, genuinely. You are the best this nation has to offer and It brings a tear to my eye to know what amazing human beings you are. The greatest human beings I have ever known carried an M-240 Bravo, a SMAW, and know what it a big deal it is to have first round effects on target in an adjust fire mission.
I looked mothers and daughters in the eye before I deployed with their sons and fathers and watched them cry. I watched years of my family’s lives through the screen of a phone or computer. What was I given return? The undying appreciation of a grateful nation. I have not been to a weekend BBQ, diner, or community gathering in the past two and a half years without someone thanking me for my service. My entire Master’s degree was paid for by the tax dollars of these same civilians. They paid me a livable wage while I was on active duty. They still buy me dinners and they still shake my hand. They share their stories with me.
If you are a veteran who has taken off the uniform and think that your responsibility to this country is over you are sorely mistaken, my friend. Your new mission has just begun. Take five minutes to realize the number of benefits this country has created for you out of the guilt they have for forgetting about our brothers who served in Vietnam. Those benefits are enough to make you wonder if you should put your hand back up and volunteer for another four years.
If you accept the statement that our nation’s veterans are the best we have to offer. If you agree the benefits we are provided are overwhelmingly abundant, then you know it’s time to pay the nation back once again. Your new mission is to re-integrate into this society. Come back and bring the lessons you learned to your neighbors, family, and friends. There is a massive benefit to the military separate of closing with and destroying the enemy that no one talks about. Our nation’s military makes better citizens.
Very rarely do I meet the veteran who doesn’t tell me he or she is a Veteran. If they don’t do it by the way they carry themselves they eventually tell me. Why? Well, because they’re so damn proud of what they have accomplished in the military. I’m proud of them too. They adopted a code of conduct and a set of core values. They lived by an honor code and they held themselves to a higher standard. It’s time to share that with the world through our actions.
Your job is to volunteer in your community, put in the long hours at work, grab a hammer and help your neighbor. I used to tell my platoon all of the time that our nation’s citizens view us as knights in shining armor. They do, I believe that. It’s why their children come up to us and thank us. It’s why the opposite sex is attracted to us. We are the proverbial protector of the gate. Now I will tell you the same thing I told my Marines after positing that argument. Don’t you for one damn minute ruin that reputation for me or for any other individual who had the balls to wear this uniform.
As Dakota Meyer said, “I got to wear the away jersey for America, Thank you for letting me do that.” This is the attitude we can and must approach our fellow citizens with. If we don’t we are doomed to forever see ourselves as outsiders. We are doomed to separate ourselves from these people who love us and look up to us. We are doomed to a lonely state of affairs.
I’m not saying that this is easy. Easy was living a life in the military. Easy was knowing where to go and what to do. It was knowing that 90% of the individuals you worked with on a daily basis also carried themselves to a higher standard. I think a part of our frustration with civilians as veterans is the anger we feel when we realize that some of them, have never been held to a higher standard. Maybe you can be the first to do so by tactfully addressing their lack of standards. Veterans are so quick to shame the citizens of this nation on social media or in private discussions with fellow Veterans.
Perhaps the response should be to have that difficult conversation with our neighbor, friend, or total stranger. After all your trained in how to deal with interpersonal violence aren’t you? Weren’t you expected to correct your fellow warrior for violating our honor code? I know one of the worst things a leader can do is fail to correct an action that should not be condoned. Why does that stop when we leave the military?
I’m not saying Veteran’s need to become the police of chivalry and appropriate conduct. I am saying that if we’re really upset about the conduct of our fellow citizens we need to do something proactive about it. Act the way you expect others to act. Tell someone you don’t know that you don’t approve of what they’re doing. Remind your co-worker how important integrity is to you and ask that they maintain that same sense of integrity when dealing with you. Pull over for the person with the flat tire. Thank the police officer who’s probably scared shitless to do his or her job.
If you’re not a religious person that is fine. You can still learn a lesson from the word’s Jesus spoke to his father on the cross. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). He said that about people who nailed him to a cross and watched him die. How does a man find the strength to do that? Well as many times as I have read scripture I tend to always find a single underlying answer. Love. I would charge you to ask yourself, right here, right now, “why did you you sign up to join the military in the first place?”
Yeah, I know the answers on the surface because they’re my answers too. I wanted to look awesome in that uniform. I wanted to slay dragons. I wanted people to respect me. I wanted to respect myself. I wanted to know if I had what it took to do so. Now let’s all take a minute to go deeper. Why did you join your nation’s military? Even if it actually was other things on the surface like pay, a place to live, the beginning of a career we all have a deeper reason for joining. After all, there are much easier ways to get paid, find shelter, and start a career.
You joined because deep down you love this country and its citizens. You love them to a fault. Love does not judge, it does not differentiate, it is unconditional. Yes, my fellow citizens let me down from time to time. Deep down, I love them with my entire heart. That very love is why I get so frustrated with them from time to time. At the same time, I know that there is something special about the American spirit. I know that because I have seen it in my brothers and sisters in uniform. Long before they put on the Multicam or the MARPAT, they were just a citizen. Long after they serve they will be just that. A citizen. Woe to the man who underestimates a citizen of the greatest nation on earth, he will pay for his lack of respect.
John McCarthy is a Father, Son, Husband and former Marine Infantry Officer. He serves his local community and just wants to push people to be better humans. Check out the Tough Talk Podcast and other writings on this website to learn more.