A few years ago, shortly after the 2008 election, a neighbor knocked on the door. She asked a favor. Her son, Ben, had a homework assignment to interview a veteran. I agreed to help and was presented with a shy first grade student. He -- with mom's help -- asked what service I was in (Air Force), what war I was in (Vietnam) and what I did in the war (flew Forward Air Controller missions). Routine stuff. Then he threw a curve: "Why do we need veterans?"
I gave Ben an answer that I thought an eight-year-old would understand. I explained that the country needed a military to protect our way of life and that when those soldiers left military service they became veterans. He seemed satisfied but, on reflection, I was disappointed in my response. I should have told him that there are many reasons we need veterans after and beyond their period of service.
I should have told Ben that we need veterans to come home to counsel and comfort the friends and families of those who do not come home. Those who have suffered the loss of a son or daughter, father or mother, sister or brother, friend or classmate need to come to closure. Someone who was there, coping with the same dangers and boredom, sweating in the same jungle or desert can help bring that closure and some small modicum of comfort. We need veterans to comfort especially their comrades in arms who come home wounded in body or in spirit
I should have told Ben that we need veterans to tell our countrymen of the horrors of war. Those who have not served, alas an increasing proportion of this nation, need to understand the brutality, suffering and horror of combat. They need to know what the troops have been asked to do, not just to be in harms way (a benign phrase that belies war's corrosion of body and soul) but on the effect of seeing the face of someone you killed. This unromantic, un-heroic view of war must be understood by the citizens and their political leaders so that the nation never again sends our young men and woman into that cauldron for other than the most serious and necessary purposes. We need veterans to remind us of the costs and consequences of war and of its gravity.
And I should have said that we need veterans to bring the values of leadership, honor and service to the civic life of this country. We need veterans to follow the examples of Colin Powell, John Kerry, Chuck Hegel Jim Webb and so many others who continue to contribute to the civic life of this nation by working for the common good and promoting civic virtue. Too often in recent years politicians have succeeded by dividing the electorate and attacking their opponents. These tactics are anathema to the military and veteran ethic, tactics to be used in war against a hostile foe, not at home against a fellow citizen. So Ben, we also need veterans to help restore civility and honor to the public discourse.
I had hope that by now I could have told Ben that the country had made great strides on this last point. But political civility has gotten worse in the last thirty months and the recent brush with a government shutdown -- not yet fully resolved-- has produced comments that would insult the maturity of Ben and his now ten year-old friends. We have congressmen and senators throwing temper tantrums and threatening to take their ball and go home if they don't get their way.
After WWI British Prime Minister David Lloyd George promised returning doughboys a
"home fit for heroes." Iraq and Afghanistan veterans should demand a political system that is worthy of their sacrifice and the sacrifices of their fallen comrades. Yes, providing veterans the medical care, education and other support is a moral obligation of this country. But there is also a greater purpose that needs to be demonstrated. Politicians need to face the nation's problems with the same honesty and courage that veterans showed in combat. They need to make sacrifices and compromises to fulfill their mission of protecting and preserving the nation's future. They need to forget their egos and work as a team for the common good. Not for their party or ideology.
All veterans, especially those in public office, need to bring their values to make America a home fit for heroes.
This story is part of Military Families Week, an effort by HuffPost and AOL to put a spotlight on issues affecting America's families who serve. Find more at jobs.aol.com/militaryfamilies and aol.com.