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Armed Forces Day 2013: A Sober Reflection on a Nearly Invisible Holiday

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Today is Armed Forces Day and unfortunately most of the country will not notice unless they are attending a Baseball game where it is being observed or some special event on a base, national cemetery, monument or VFW hall. There are also protests, sometimes involving veterans. Last year at the NATO Summit in Chicago which coincided with Armed Forces Day a number of veterans protested by throwing away their Global War on Terror Medal. I actually have little problem with people protesting wars, even the current one so long as they direct their protest at the appropriate target, the politicians, pundits, think tank wonks and lobbyists that profit from war and not the soldiers that fight them.

Now there are a fair number of local celebrations to honor members of the Armed Forces across the country. As a career officer and son of a Vietnam veteran Navy Chief I appreciate those events and the people that put them together. Being a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, especially those that have taken the time to honor Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

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Likewise there are wonderful people that honor the Armed Forces every day. I think especially about the Maine Troop Greeters of Bangor Maine and the Pease Troop Greeters of New Hampshire. These men and women, many veterans themselves or related to veterans are amazing. They have been welcoming veterans back since early in the war and provide many services to the men and women of the Armed Forces that pass through Bangor Maine International Airport and the Portsmouth International Airport, the former Pease Air Force Base in Pease New Hampshire.  I have had the honor of passing through both locations, Bangor on more than one occasion. While I know that there are many others that do this they are in the minority in this country.

At any given time less than 1% of Americans are serving in all components of the military. For over 10 years we have been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as other locations that we don’t like to talk about too much like Pakistan. However this has not been the effort of a nation at war. For the most part the war effort is that of a tiny percentage of the population.

As a nation we are disconnected from the military and the wars that have been going on for so long. The fact is that most Americans do not feel that they have a personal or vested interest in these wars because they have been insulated by political leaders of both parties from them. There is no draft, and no taxes were raised to fund the wars and the military is worn out while taking 50% of the cuts of the Congressional Sequester.

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We have now been at war continuously for nearly 12 years and truthfully there is no end in sight. In that time every single Soldier, Sailor, Marine and Airman volunteered for duty or reenlisted during this time period. Motives may have varied from individual to individual, but unlike the World Wars, Korea and Vietnam every single one volunteered to serve in time of war. I think that this makes the current generation of veterans quite unique.

Many of these volunteers served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither war was popular, except in the very beginning when casualties were low and victory appeared to be easy and quick. We like short wars. We left Iraq in December 2011 and Afghanistan is still going to be with us for God knows how long, even though we are drawing down or forces there.

In Afghanistan we followed the same path trod by the British and Soviets in trying to topple regimes and plant our respective versions of civilization in that land of brutal Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek warlords who war on each other as much as any foreign infidel.  It is a path that leads to heartbreak which ties down vast amounts of manpower without any significant strategic gain for the United States or NATO.  This even as war drums beat across the Middle East and nuclear armed Pakistan slips into political and social chaos and keeps a major supply route for the US and NATO to Afghanistan shut down.

The fact is that American and for that matter other NATO and coalition military personnel who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa or at sea are in the minority in all of our countries. Thus when a few of the few of these veterans choose to make a public spectacle of themselves by tossing a medal away they get cheered and lots of media attention. Some liberals applaud the medal throwers and conservatives vilify them without getting what is really going on. Both miss the tragic disconnection between the military and civilian society that is the result of public policy since the end of the Vietnam War. A relatively small professional military in comparison to the population is sent to fight wars while the bulk of the population is uninvolved and corporations, lobbyists and think tanks get rich.

Rachel Maddow the MSNBC host of the Rachel Maddow Show wrote in her outstanding book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power:

“The reason the founders chafed at the idea of an American standing army and vested the power of war making in the cumbersome legislature was not to disadvantage us against future enemies, but to disincline us toward war as a general matter… With citizen-soldiers, with the certainty of a vigorous political debate over the use of a military subject to politicians’ control, the idea was for us to feel it- uncomfortably- every second we were at war. But after a generation or two of shedding the deliberate political encumbrances to war that they left us… war making has become almost an autonomous function of the American state. It never stops.” 

Now, going back to the protestors for a minute. The right to protest and disagree with policy and the politics of war is important and for Americans is protected under the First Amendment. That being said I think it is important that when one protests a war that they direct their protest at the appropriate target, the army of lobbyists and think tank wonks that promote the politics of war regardless of who is President and not the soldiers. The fact is that the lobbyists, pundits that promote war don’t care about the protesters or the troops. This is because no matter who is in office or who controls Congress they will promote policies that keep them employed and their businesses enriched. Marine Major General and Medal of Honor winner Smedley Butler was quite right when he said:

“War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.”

I may disagree with the manner of how and when veterans protest wars that they have served like those that threw their medals away in Chicago last year. However, I am not going to question their motives, integrity or honor even if I disagree with their manner of protest because I came back different from war.

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When a society sends off its sons and daughters to fight in wars that no one understands, and the vast majority of people no longer support it is no wonder that some veterans make such displays. Likewise it is understandable why other veterans have major issues with such protestors, just as many Vietnam veterans still feel the hurt of how a nation turned its back on them. For example I still have a terrible time even thinking about Jane Fonda, the images of her manning a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun when my dad was serving in Vietnam.

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Protests may make some feel good, but they often miss the bigger point of why wars like these go on for so long.  That they do is because misguided policies have brought about a chronic disconnection in our society between those that serve in the military and those that do not. But how can there not be when in the weeks after 9-11 people like President Bush and others either directly or in a manner of speaking told people to “go shopping”* as we went to war in Afghanistan? When I returned from Iraq I returned to a nation that was not at war whose leaders used the war to buttress their respective political bases.

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I think that Armed Forces Day should be better celebrated but I am grateful to those people that do things every day to thank and support military personnel in thought, word and deed like the Maine Greeters and Pease Greeters. The interesting thing about these groups is that they are made up of citizens from across the political spectrum, veterans and non-veterans who simply care for and appreciate the men and women that serve in and fight the wars that no-one else can be bothered to fight.

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I just hope and pray that the end in Afghanistan does not turn into an even worse historic debacle than suffered by the British or the Soviets during their ill fated campaigns. Of course the politicians, pundits, preachers and the defense contractors, banks and lobbyists will find a way to profit from this no matter how many more troops are killed, wounded or injured and how badly it affects military personnel or their families. After all, to quote Smedley Butler, “war is a racket.”

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Peace

Padre Steve+

President Bush’s actually words were “Now, the American people have got to go about their business. We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t — where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop…” http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/10/20011011-7.html

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Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, national security, philosophy

Where were You When…? The Death of an Icon and Its Impact in Our Lives

Note: This post is one where I invite readers to share any memories they have of Michael Jackson’s death or other events that involved the deaths of cultural icons as well as significant events that either affected you or made a deep impact on your life or that of people that you know.  I will approve all comments except those identified as spam by WordPress.

The death of Michael Jackson yesterday was one of those events in life that when they occur leave a lasting impression on people. Even people who were not fans of Michael will remember because Michael Jackson was a cultural icon.  When icons die, or tragedies occur they tend to leave a lasting mark.  You can be talking to anyone and if they were alive when one of these events happened and quite a few or most people will be able to tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing at the time of the event.

I am 49 years old, though patently I don’t really look my age, nor do I act it.  Being that I am nearly half a century old it means that I have seen a fair amount of life.  Since I am passionate about life and a keen observer of life, society and culture being a historian as well as member of the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park parish I remember a lot.  I’m told by some that I have one of those phonographic memories.  You know the kind where you get a thought in your head and it keeps going and going round and round at 33 1/3 RPMs.  I will remember this because we had just arrived at the Capital Hilton and were preparing to go out for dinner with Judy’s cousin Becki at Murphy’s of DC to celebrate our anniversary.  I had just checked the news when I heard that Michael had been found down and was in cardiac arrest.  Since I have seen a lot of these cases roll into ERs that I have worked in I knew that Jackson had very little chance of coming out of this alive.  Most news sites were reported that he was getting CPR and had been taken to UCLA Medical Center.  Then I checked the website of Matt Drudge, the Drudge Report following a look at CNN.  I opened the page and Drudge’s trademark old fashioned police siren light was flashing and below it in red was “WEBSITE: JACKSON DEAD!” and had a link to the celebrity gossip site TMZ.  TMZ actually reported the death over an hour prior to most of the networks.  It also turned out that TMZ’s report was pretty accurate.  Later other sites began to announce the news pretty much confirming TMZ’s initial report. I saw the report on CNN as we walked to get a cab to the restaurant with Becki.  It was kind of surreal as Michael Jackson, despite his eccentric actions and nearly continuous controversy surrounding his life, was a larger than life figure.

So events like this get etched on people’s memories like images of the Virgin Mary on grilled cheese sandwiches or pizzas.  These have been reported by the faithful and offered for sale on E-bay so they must be authentic right? They are something that you reallymust  remember. Talking with Judy and Becki at dinner we began to recount where we were at different moments events over the past 30 years or so.   For me the events are often linked to other seemingly inconsequential events going on in my own life. As I have said before we have lived a life  much like the characters in the show Seinfeld so some of these things may not be as funny to you as they are for me.

Some of the things that I remember which stand out include the following events.  If you remember where you were at these events please feel free to comment or add your own in the comments section.  This is one of those rare times when almost everyone has a memory that surfaces because a current event triggers the memory of that particular event.

For me I’m going to first each back to is the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King on April 4th 1968.  That was strange because we lived in the little town of Oak Harbor Washington where my dad was stationed.  The town was small and isolated by being on an island.  We saw the news reports that night this time I believe we were watching NBC’s Huntley and Brinkley give the news. This was way before Cable news and so it took a while to get the story out.  As a little kid I was astounded that anyone could kill a minister and I knew that Dr. King was a leader in trying get blacks the same rights that whites enjoyed.  The next day our teacher at Oak Harbor Elementary School, Mrs. Jackson talked about it with us.  This was follow just two months later by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy following his California Primary election victory.  I remember the news reports the next day and how upset that my parents were about his death.

The next event was Apollo 11 Moon landing, the “One small step for man, one giant step for mankind” moment on July 20th 1969 where Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Lunar Module on the “Sea of Tranquility.”  I was a kid and on summer vacation still living in Oak Harbor.  We were at home watching Walter Cronkite report the event live when it happened.  That was an amazing event.

The next really big thing for me was the Marshall University Football team plane crash in Huntington West Virginia where at 7:35 Pm EST a Southern Airways DC-9 crashed into a hillside just short of the runway killing the team as well as numerous boosters, alumni and Huntington notables.  This was kind of person for us.  I had seen that team practice at the old Fairfield Stadium across the street from my grandparent’s house the previous spring before we returned to California to rejoin my dad after he had found us decent housing.  We were watching the evening news in Long Beach California when the local announcer interrupted the story he was working on and announced the crash.  My mom knew a number of people on the aircraft and was devastated.

I’m going to jump forward a bit, to the fall of Saigon on April 30th 1975.  This was a bitter day for me.  My dad had fought in Vietnam and I knew kids who had lost their fathers in the war.  I had experienced a Sunday School teach telling me that my dad was a “baby killer” for being in Vietnam in 1972 and I felt that we had let the South Vietnamese down and that it was the fault of those in the media, on the street and in Congress that had ensured that our men died in vain.  I think that was the point that I decided that I was going to enter the military.  I still cannot look at Jane Fonda and some of her fellow travelers without feeling a sense of anger.

Jumping again a few years I remember the fall of the Shah of Iran and the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran by so called “students” on November 4th 1979.  The takeover which lasted 444 days began in my sophomore year of college.  The humiliation of the country and the poor response of President Jimmy Carter confirmed that I would enter the military after college.  I won’t forget the nightly updates on ABC hosted by Ted Koppel which became the long running show Nightline. I would stay up every night to get the updates.  When the hostages were released this was cause for celebration, but the damage was done.  Of course we saw the pro and anti-Ayatollah  protesters on our university, Northride a big business school responded to a pro-Ayatollah by driving the protestors off campus.  So much for riled up MBA students and Science geeks huh?

When Elvis died on August 16th 1977 I was a getting ready to enter my senior year of high school.  In fact only a week before I had won a copy of a blue vinyl copy of his last album Moody Blue in a local pop radio station give away.  I was on a church high school trip when the news came over the radio.  The man driving the car a real estate agent who was a deacon in the church started to cry, I mean like really cry almost like Middle Eastern mourning kind of crying.  As someone who is less expressive of such emotions being a Romulan at heart I was mildly taken aback, after all it wasn’t like they had dated or anything.  I had seldom seen men cry before and this was some pretty emotional stuff.  My mom had the same kind of reaction I discovered on my way home.  I guess it was the generation thing.  He was the icon of his generation and changed both the style and the performance of music.  It was Elvis that I immediately thought of when I first saw the news of Michael Jackson’s death.  I guess the fact that both were known as the “king”, that both died young and unexpectedly and that Michael was briefly married to Lisa Marie Presley makes their connection a bit stronger than otherwise expected.  I wonder if there will be stories that Michael is really dead or if it was staged to get him some privacy.  I’m sure that conspiracy theorists will be looking into this as both a death and a disappearance.  On a side note I visited Graceland in 1983 on my way to Fort Knox Kentucky and sat in the “pink Jeep.”  Judy had a Tonka pink Jeep when she was a kid.

The attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan on March 20th 1981 stands out.  I was a junior at cal State Northridge and was taking my lunch on the lawn outside of the office where I worked as a peer counselor.  I was getting ready to go to class as I watched to really good looking girls go walking by me talking.  I didn’t notice anything unusual until the past me and continuing to watch I noticed that each had their hand down the back side of the pants of the other one.  I had never seen this before.  Of course having grown up in California I knew homosexual men and I had heard of lesbians but this was the first time that I ever noticed women of that persuasion like doing some affection or foreplay in public.  Since then of course I have had many friendships with both male homosexuals and lesbians but this was one of those moments that sticks out in my mind.  Anyway, as I walked back into the office to grab my books for class the office TV was on announcing the attempted assassination and what I will never forget is watching retired General Alexander Haig as Secretary of State have a news conference where he stated “I’m in control.”  Of course he wasn’t the next in line and though he thought that he was he was not in control, even of himself that that point.  I don’t think that then Vice President George H.W. Bush was very impressed nor were the actuals in the line of succession.  So the shooting of President Reagan is intermixed with my first view of lesbian touching and seeing a General go out of control to be in control.  As Mr. Spock might say to Captain Kirk, “Captain I find this fascinating.”

In January 1985 I was a young company commander in Wiesbaden Germany.  The Space Shuttle Challenger with 7 Astronauts aboard blew up shortly after launch.  It was already the close of the business day in Germany when this happened.  I had the First Sergeant release the soldiers a bit early and set the duty, the Charge of Quarters, the Assistant and the Duty Driver.  I was staying late as always to take care of maintenance management and personnel reports when Specialist Lisa Dailey rushed into my office.  Lisa was the Charge of Quarters or CQ that day.  She knocked on my door and said “Sir the space shuttle just blew up.”  She had been watching it live on the new AFN broadcast of live stateside TV news broadcasts.  If I recall this was the time slot of the Today Show, and yes it was when there was only one AFN broadcast channel.  I looked up from my mountain of reports and said to her, “Specialist Dailey, space shuttles don’t blow up.”  And she said, no sir it just did, I was watching it and it is on TV right now.”  So I got up from my desk and walked at a brisk pace down the hall with my spun up specialist and looked on in horror as I saw a replay of the launch.   I was stunned as like I had told Lisa “space shuttles don’t blow up.”  However this one did and it was sobering.  I should have believed Lisa, she was a great soldier and the last time that I heard from her is doing well working as an RN in Southern California.  I had an eerie reprise of this when the Space Shuttle Columbia blew up on re-entry.  At the time I was waiting for the arrival of General Peter Pace who was to be our guest speaker at the Battle of Hue City Memorial Weekend in Jacksonville FL. He was delayed a couple of hours by an emergency meeting of the Joint Chiefs.

Fast forward a few years to the bombing by Libyan agents of Pam Am flight 103, the Clipper Maid of the Seas over Lockerbie Scotland, on December 21st 1988.  I had left active duty for seminary a couple of months previously and was engaged in a nearly futile job search in oil and real estate busted Texas.  I had completed the share of my morning futility mailing our more resumes, making more calls and picking up more job applications.  As always I would take a football out and punt it as far as I could to relieve the stress.  I had already found out that breaking things that you actually need when being accosted by bill collectors is not good a good way to deal with stress.  In today’s current economy I suggest anyone is such straits pick up a football and punt the crap out of it rather than taking anything out on home appliances, electronics or loved ones.  Eventually things will work out as sucky as they may seem now; the Deity Herself has assured me of this.  Anyway, back to the plane crash.  This really was weird for us because barely two years prior we had flown the same aircraft back from Germany when we were reassigned to the states.  We remembered this because then they showed the photo of the nose and cockpit area we saw the name of the aircraft.  I looked at Judy and said, does the name of that airplane look familiar?  If I recall correctly she said something like “Oh my God” and I said: “Remember back in Frankfurt when I saw the name of the aircraft prior to boarding?” and how “l liked the way Pan Am gave pretty names to its aircraft.”  It was funny because we both vividly recalled waiting for our flight and what we said about the aircraft.  That was totally weird and surreal almost like an X-Files thing as I thought back to details inside of the aircraft and the trip home from Germany.

We were in Fort Worth for the first bombing of the World Trade Center and the destruction of the Branch Davidian Compound outside Waco.  Both times I was at work and watched the events unfold on the televisions of our ministry’s television production department.  The Branch Davidian stand-off and attempted seizure of by Federal Agents used M-751 Combat Engineer Vehicles from my National Guard unit.  The vehicles were not manned by Guardsmen but Federal agents.  Later that summer I saw a couple of the vehicles which still had white paint scratches on them from the Branch Davidian building.   In 1995 I was home getting ready to go to work in Huntington West Virginia when the Murrow Federal Building was destroyed by Timothy McVeigh.

There are quite a few others that I could mention but will finish with the destruction of the World Trade Center twin towers on September 11th 2001.  I had finished a couple of counseling cases and put out some other brush fires as the Chaplain for Headquarters Battalion 2nd Marine Division.  Leaving my office for a belated PT session at the French Creek gym I was closing out my internet explorer.  On the Yahoo home page there was a small news line that said “Aircraft crashes into World Trade Center.” I shrugged and figured that some idiot private pilot had flown his aircraft into is by mistake and when out to my car.  I got in my 2001 Honda CR-V and some guy on the radio was blathering about it being an airliner and then I heard a chilling line that I will never forget. “Oh my God another aircraft has hit the second building.”  I went over to the gym and stood staring in disbelief at one of the TVs with a bunch of Marines and Sailors.  I shook my head, ran back to the office and changed over to my cammies and when to the Battalion Headquarters where we were informed of what the command knew and then set to work taking anti-terror precautions as no one knew what might happen next.  Camp LeJeune became a fortress.  There were checkpoints at key locations throughout the base.  Patrols were set up and we remained in lock-down for almost 4 days.  That is a day that I can never forget, over 3000 Americans and others killed by Islamic extremist terrorists out to ignite a world war.

So those are some of mine.  What about yours?  Feel free to add your posts here and get a discussion of these and other notable events including the death of Michael Jackson going.  It will be interesting to see and I will approve all posts to this article, excepting of course spam posts.

Peace, Steve+

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