I can’t say it better myself, so here it is:
Here’s a Memorial Day quiz:
1. Who is Jessica Lynch?
Correct. She’s the Army private captured, and later rescued, in the early days of the war.
2. Who is Leigh Ann Hester?
Come on. The Kentucky National Guard vehicle commander was awarded a Silver Star last year for fighting off an insurgent attack on a convoy in Iraq. The first woman to receive a Silver Star since World War II, and the first woman ever to receive one for close combat.
If you don’t recognize Sergeant Hester’s name, that’s not surprising. While Private Lynch’s ordeal appears in some 12,992 newspaper and broadcast reports on the Factiva news service, Sergeant Hester and her decoration for extraordinary valor show up in only 162.
One difference: Sergeant Hester is a victor, while Private Lynch can be seen as a victim. And when it comes to media reports about the military these days, victimology is all the rage. For every story about someone who served out of conviction and resolutely went on with his civilian life, there are many more articles about a soldier’s failure or a veteran’s floundering.
It’s a sign of some progress that the men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are not spit upon and shunned as Vietnam vets were. Yet there may be something more pernicious about mouthing “Support Our Troops” while also asserting that many of them are poor, uneducated dupes who were cannon fodder overseas and have come home as basket cases, plagued by a range of mental, emotional and financial problems.
The vast majority of vets don’t fit that description. Many, like one returned Army guardsman we talked to, chalk up this portrayal to the media’s fascination with bad news in general. As for his combat in Iraq, both “going to war and coming home is very overwhelming,” he says. “But you make choices in life . . . and through inner strength and support, I am making a choice that I want to be healthy.”
In some cases, the depiction of military personnel as damaged goods serves the antiwar agenda. Yet retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Tom Linn sees more basic impulses at work. “I honestly believe it is guilt” and even resentment, he says. The military type as misfit “is a stereotype that a lot of people from the Vietnam era have held on to.” Then, as now, “they saw men and women who did more than they did . . . and they’d compensate by casting those folks in an inferior status.”
This Memorial Day, most of us will remember the Americans who have served their country since the Revolutionary War not with pity but with admiration. For those who want to show their gratitude, Major John Morris has some recommendations. He’s deputy chaplain for Minnesota’s Army National Guard and a founder of a state program called Reintegration: Beyond Reunion. Its broad goal, he explains, is to help returning guardsmen and reservists frame their “experience, to draw from it everything that they can to grow into productive citizens.”
How can we help? For one thing, he says, don’t assume that all struggling vets are sick, since what looks like abnormal behavior may be culture shock. But do give vets and their families the tools to adjust. Major Morris explains: “Schools, look out for these military kids. Neighbors, cut their grass and shovel their snow, baby-sit and do chores around the house. Employers, make sure those jobs are still there.” It’s the least we can do, he says: “Since there are so few of us fighting the war, it’s easy for the rest of us to try.”