Last week I had the privilege of attending a yelow-ribbon ceremony honoring Fort Hood soldiers and their families. The ceremony was sponsored by the Harker Heights Military Affairs Committee (MAC) and “warm and fuzzy” is the best way I can describe it. Jeanne Isdale, one of the co-chairs for the MAC, had some wonderful things to say about our military members, as did other community leaders who were there. It is clear that Killeen, Harker Heights, Copperas Cove, and the other communities that surround Fort Hood value the Armed Services and—as Ms. Isdale said so well—“have our backs.”
But what about the rest of this country? With the Afghanistan war—“Operation Enduring Freedom”—winding down, many of us are reflecting on what the last 10-plus years have meant for us and for our military. Initially full of patriotism and a shared sense of horror and sadness after 9/11, we were a country united. Then it was March 2003 and we were at war, first in Iraq and subsequently Afghanistan. The losses have been staggering by our modern standards—nearly 7,000 military members have died and hundreds of thousands have been injured, some grievously. In addition, thousands of coalition troops, contractors, innocent civilians and NGO workers have been killed or wounded. Contemplating all this loss is heartbreaking. Wondering if the average American citizen understands our military’s mission, or—pardon my bluntness—truly cares—makes it doubly so.
Unlike previous wars, these two conflicts have not involved much sacrifice on the home front. World War II was known for the way everyday Americans got involved in the war effort. Food rationing, buying War Bonds, kids collecting scrap metal to be recycled and re-used, and people growing “Victory Gardens” all spring to mind. There was a sense of everyone being in it together because they were. By contrast, this past decade-plus of wars has felt very different. Yes, wars are being fought but they are not terribly “personal” to the vast majority. During WWII, it was rare to find a citizen who did not have a male relative in the war. Nowadays, our armed forces make up less than 1 percent of the population.
It’s not even necessarily a matter of your political leanings—more of a general state of malaise that has fallen over the country. I recall then-president George W. Bush encouraging Americans to “go shopping” to keep the economy robust during the height of the Iraq War. When my husband, Rob, was deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, I took my older son to Eau Claire, Wisc., to visit my parents. At some point, we were chatting with a neighbor and I mentioned my husband was deployed for a year. There was an uncomfortable silence followed by her saying, “Really? I didn’t know the military was going over there for that long.” It was an awkward and lonely moment for me.
How many civilians in this country know that our men and women in uniform were (and still are) risking their lives for months at a time? I have since asked myself, what kinds of sacrifice SHOULD the average American have to make? I often wonder if I have made enough sacrifices. Rob’s brother Matt made the ultimate sacrifice. He was killed in Iraq in December, 2006. Matt was a 25-year-old Marine with everything to live for. Except that he didn’t…nor did thousands of other promising young men and women like him.
It is easy to flip the channel on war coverage during the television news when you have no point of reference. The Vietnam War Memorial, with more than 58,000 names inscribed upon it is sobering, but when you can point to a father’s, an uncle’s or even a brother’s name, then it is truly meaningful. I know that losing his brother has made this painfully true for my husband, his parents, and other family members. And I certainly don’t wish this kind of loss for others. But I do believe the American people need to be just as invested in our conflicts overseas as the 1 percent is.
I struggle with conflicting emotions over our troops still deploying to Afghanistan. It’s been said many times before by people far wiser than myself but our two cultures are as different as Venus and Mars. Call me crazy but it seems that without a thorough understanding of another country’s history, government, language and culture, effecting permanent change is, well, futile. And few of our military members have this deep understanding, through no fault of their own. It is no secret that Afghanistan has a bottomless well of problems and there doesn’t seem to be enough time, money or troops to fix them. At the same time, I want to believe we--our military and many others who continue to put their lives on the line there—are still making a positive difference, albeit in small ways. Matt’s death is a part of this rationalization, of course—how could it not be?
The point of the yellow ribbon ceremony in Harker Heights was to show the soon-to—be-redeploying III Corps soldiers that they have been missed and will be welcomed home with open arms. I hope other communities across this great country are still using this simple yet beautiful symbol to tell military members that they are not alone and that “we have their backs.”