12/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Do We Need Veterans?

A few days ago, a neighbor knocked on the door. She had seen my "Veterans for Obama" lawn signs and 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 not only those who come home wounded in body or in spirit but also to lend support to those whose love ones came home in a coffin.

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 have hope that the country may have made great strides on this last point during the last election. Attempts to "Swift Boat" candidates largely failed. Charging opponents with "socialism" or having ties to terrorists or being "godless: seemed to have no effect or to backfire. The American people shrugged off distractions and concentrated on problem solving -- the core competence of the military and those who served.

There may be one last chance to validate this hope. If there is a run off election for the Georgia Senate seat between Jim Martin, a Vietnam War veteran and Saxby Chambliss, we will see that hope put to the test. Chambliss defeated Max Cleland for the seat in 2002 by running a campaign that John McCain described as "disgraceful" and "reprehensible". Chambliss accused a decorated veteran, who left three limbs on a Vietnam battlefield, of being unpatriotic and compared him to Osama bin Laden. Chambliss used similar tactics against Martin but they did not produce the required clear majority. If there is a run off on December 3rd, we will see how much power these shameful tactics still hold. And perhaps we will see another veteran entering Congress and restoring honor to that seat.

So, Ben, I am sorry I gave you such a lame answer. Perhaps when you are a bit older, I can do better.