In an era where yellow “Support the Troops” magnets adorn every other vehicle on the road and where rubber bracelets (color-coded for the cause célèbre) serve more as accessories than symbols of true compassion, I find myself wondering what we have learned as a nation during a decade of war. As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, I think it’s our responsibility as Americans to reflect on the meaning of patriotism, and perhaps take a closer look at where we fall short.
As defined by Merriam-Webster, patriotism is a love for or devotion to one’s country. But a distinction must be made between purely symbolic gestures (like flying an American flag and blasting Toby Keith) and selfless deeds performed on behalf of a greater cause and for the betterment of others. While this weekend is sure to inspire a flurry of symbolic patriotism, what we also need is a renewed passion for serving our country.
Americans can serve by joining the military, an intelligence agency, or the State Department, and also groups such as the Peace Corps or Teach for America. But there is another less obvious but all the more necessary form of patriotism: serving those who served.
This is astoundingly easy. Make a donation to a noble veteran-focused non-profit like HirePatriots.com or the Wounded Warrior Project; reach out to a family that has a loved one deployed; employ a veteran; or shake a uniformed service member’s hand at the airport and say “thank you for your service.” Our war-weary combat veterans need, now more than ever, the support of a grateful nation.
Consider this: for the past decade, the “Global War on Terror” has been waged by only a small fraction of our population (a mere 1%). The burden being shouldered by these warriors who keep deploying into harms way and their families, who watch time and again as their loved ones leave for war, is unimaginable for most Americans. The shared sacrifice of World War II that fostered widespread patriotism and a singular focus on winning the fight between good and evil seems to be an aberration of the past. Despite the 24-hour “breaking news” phenomenon that permeates today’s media, most Americans are quite insulated from seeing or experiencing the daily struggles that multiple deployments are having on the war-fighters and their families.
After ten straight years of war, members of the military have become conditioned to consider combat deployments as the norm, rather than the exception. Today, over 50% of our active duty military personnel have served their entire military careers while their country is at war.
For example, one of the finest Marines I know just returned from his seventh full-length, seven-plus month combat deployment. Think about that for a minute. Since September 11th, this Marine has spent more than four years in aggregate conducting counterterrorism missions in the most dangerous combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Any combat veteran knows that because of the sheer randomness of most casualties, the amount of time spent in a combat zone is highly correlated with the likelihood of becoming a casualty. This “rule of thumb” makes my friend’s mere survival (without so much as a scratch) a statistical anomaly. Equally miraculous is the fact that he and his wife have remained married, despite the years they lived apart and the cumulative stress each deployment caused on them individually and collectively.
Although impossible to confirm, some reports claim that because of their incredibly high operational tempo, the divorce rate for certain Tier 1 Special Operations units is as high as 90% for first marriages.
In response to this often-unbearable deployment pace, many warriors decide to leave the military in order to salvage a marriage or reconnect with their families, and to transition into the seemingly less stressful civilian workforce. The private sector, unfortunately, presents altogether different (but no less challenging) obstacles for many veterans. The unemployment rate for post 9/11 veterans is a staggering 21.1%, more than twice the national average. Some veteran advocates argue that the veteran unemployment rate is actually much worse.
So what does this all mean? We have a disproportionately small percentage of our population shouldering a decade-long war effort and a war-fatigued nation that is rapidly losing interest. Warriors are returning home to strained marriages and to children that are growing up without them. To make matters worse, warriors are being asked to deploy into harms way over and over again, oftentimes only receiving a short five-month respite stateside to prepare for their next combat stint. With such little downtime between deployments and a general aversion to seeking much-needed psychotherapy, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become one of the signature afflictions of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
PTSD is an oft-misunderstood concept that, until recently, was taboo for warriors to discuss amongst themselves, not to mention with the general public. The “if we ignore it maybe it’ll go away” attitude was, certainly in the first half of the past decade, widespread amongst the military commands and reinforced at the small unit level. Unwillingness to address emotional health as being equally vital to a warrior’s readiness as their physical health compounded the crisis. Combat veterans were forced to either hide their problems or seek counseling from civilian therapists (for fear of reprisal from their command upon seeking help through the military health system).
In fact, up until a few years ago, having undergone mental health counseling for ANY reason (including PTSD) was a red flag on an applicant’s security clearance questionnaire. Not surprisingly, the units that require every member to retain a clearance (special operations and intelligence units) are the very units that have the highest operational tempos, thereby putting their warriors at the greatest risk for developing PTSD. Until the questionnaire was finally changed to preclude having to disclose combat-related and family-related counseling, the jobs of the very warriors who had the most pressing need for psychotherapy depended on their not undergoing psychological treatment.
Accepting help for the “unseen” or “invisible” stresses induced by combat goes counter to virtually every character trait espoused by the military. These traits, including mental toughness, moral clarity, and an unwavering determination to overcome any obstacle, make convincing a warrior that he needs psychotherapy an often insurmountable task. In fact, the stigma associated with the term “disorder” in the diagnosis of PTSD is cause for many combat veterans to refuse therapy.
More often than not, a warrior must spiral downhill into a dark and lonely place where guilt and misery are overbearing before they are finally capable of realizing and accepting the fact that they need help. It’s no coincidence that the VA’s campaign to provide mental health resources to those in crisis is marketed with the adage: “It takes the strength and courage of a warrior to ask for help.”
Those lucky enough to identify and become aware of their need to seek help can oftentimes recover and find a sense of peace and stability in their lives. Unfortunately, many struggling warriors turn to drugs and alcohol to help steady their nerves and numb their emotional pain. Some warriors become so entrenched and obsessed with their guilt and their pain that suicide seems like the only way out.
As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of September 11th, we mourn those lost that fateful Tuesday morning while also grieving for the warriors that have since made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our great nation. Amidst all the political bickering and the media squabble, and during a time of historic dissatisfaction both for our elected officials on both sides of the aisle and for the direction our nation is heading, our country must unite, as we did in the days following 9/11, to give thanks for the blessings we still share as Americans. Republican or Democrat, hawk or dove, veteran or civilian, we stand together as we mourn.
Abraham Lincoln captured the same grief our nation bears on this anniversary of 9/11 when he wrote: “I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”
It is the duty of every American to take care of our nation’s heroes and their families, even as the reinstated patriotism of this anniversary fades. While some Americans will undoubtedly be compelled to serve in the wake of this weekend’s commemorations, let’s hope that even more patriots are compelled to support and care for the brave warriors who already bear the scars, both visible and invisible, of a decade of war.
Bingham Jamison served two combat tours as a Marine Corps Officer in Iraq. He earned his Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation after leaving active duty, and has worked combating terrorism financing and managing investments for non-profit endowments and foundations. A captain in the Marine Ready Reserves, he lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two children.