Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Last Monday in May

I hope you all had a restful and happy long weekend. Holidays are particularly precious here in the States, as we have so few official ones compared to many of our friends abroad. This Memorial Day weekend was a pretty much a big wet bust here in New England, in terms of kicking off the beach season, but Monday itself was glorious and sunny. We took full advantage by getting outdoors and barbecuing with friends.

It's easy to get so heady over an actual paid day off (assuming you don't work in retail, hospitality or emergency services) that we forget the reason behind the Memorial Day holiday.

Which is unsurprising. These days, I feel like people either know lots of service members or they don't know any. We're in the latter camp, which is why this post didn't run Monday. As a non-military mom, I felt uneasy wading into this territory.

But everyone should be concerned with the lot of our soldiers. Not just military families, who already have so much on their plates.

I confess I hadn't given much thought to Memorial Day beyond whether we'd get to hit the beach or not, until a woman I know from my gym mentioned that her twenty-something-year-old son is serving in Afghanistan. He's an officer stationed somewhere near Kandahar, and last week he had the grim task of writing four families to tell them their sons/husbands/dads, young men in his command, would be coming home in coffins.

I started to wrack my brain, trying to come up with some remotely close friend or family member currently engaged in active military service. My tally: one. One of my best college friends is married to a Major in the Army Reserves. He recently returned from a one year deployment to Djibouti (deployment motto: Not Much Fun, But Way Better Than Kandahar).

Whenever we mark the last Monday in May, or the troops suffer a particularly large number of casualties within a short time frame, pundits and politicians wax on about shared sacrifice in resolute tones—for the length of a 24-hour news cycle.

From where I'm sitting, I don't see much in the way of shared sacrifice.

I see a small number of military families shouldering an obscene burden. I wonder how many are crumbling under the strain of their disproportionate slice of national duty. The uncertainty, not just about whether their family members will return alive, but with what injuries, and with what chances of being sent back to the war zone over and over again, must exact a staggering emotional toll.

I'm not arguing for a draft. As a mother to a young son, I would never propose such a thing lightly.

But maybe the last Monday in May should cause us to consider some questions about our national priorities:

How many deployments can or should we reasonably expect of any given soldier at a time when military suicides are at an all time high? Or how long should those combat scarred soldiers be forced to wait for meaningful mental health services upon returning home? If we're going to live in a state of perpetual war, a state the Commander-in-Chief recently acknowledged was untenable, do we need to re-visit the draft? Or lower standards for admission to the all volunteer fighting force? Should we impose some type of wartime tax surcharge on top incomes to help pay veterans' medical costs? Is it time to follow the model of many western nations and institute some kind of mandatory national service for citizens in their late teens?

And this one: What percentage of the adult citizenry even knows we are at war? (I have no idea, but I bet it's not a super-majority.)

At the same time, certain war hawks screech for military action in Syria, a country torn to shreds by a bloody civil war with no end in sight. My heart aches for the mothers losing their children in the ever-more-brutal slaughter, and I understand some of the arguments against letting the country dissolve into a group of warring fiefdoms. Bashar al-Assad is a brute of the worst kind and I hope he rots in a special part of hell, but I'm firmly against sending someone else's sons and daughters to remove him, to create another power vacuum in the Middle East, to embark on another ill-advised and costly fool's errand to invade a foreign country that hasn't attacked us (see, e.g., Iraq, Invasion of).

I find nothing in national discourse so repugnant, so viscerally disgusting, as actively draft-dodging politicians who want to send someone else's children to fight someone else's war.

Sadly chicken hawks abound in Washington. They're usually the same guys who want to cut funding for the VA, where our vets must already wait two plus months for an initial appointment with a mental health professional, or slash jobs programs for returning vets, who remain unemployed in disproportionately high numbers relative to the rest of the population.

Shouldn't Memorial Day, a day designated to honor our war dead, cause us to consider how we as a country treat their surviving brothers and sisters in arms? It seems to me that there's no better way to salute the memory of the fallen than to improve the lot of their fellow soldiers.

A discussion on real options for shared sacrifice would mean more than so many flag photos waving on Facebook.

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