Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Pat LaMarche: The Big Memorial Day Joke

A Vietnam veteran sits down next to an Iraq veteran and asks him, "How long have you been living in this homeless shelter." The Iraq veteran responds, "Ever since Memorial Day." And they laugh and laugh. Really, why shouldn't they? The joke is -- after all -- on them.

Before discussing the appalling treatment of U.S. Military active duty members, guardsmen, reserves and veterans, one should really understand what Memorial Day means. According to the website, "Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation's service." Well maybe that's why it's ok that our nation undervalues its active duty military as well as post service personnel: they aren't dead. Well, they're not dead yet.

It seems I'm not the only one who noticed the day doesn't have the meaning it should. But for different reasons -- after all -- I'm lamenting the disrespect shown to our living heroes while bemoans the lack of honor bestowed upon the nation's fallen, "Traditional observance of Memorial Day has diminished over the years. Many Americans nowadays have forgotten the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day. At many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen are increasingly ignored, neglected. Most people no longer remember the proper flag etiquette for the day. While there are towns and cities that still hold Memorial Day parades, many have not held a parade in decades. Some people think the day is for honoring any and all dead, and not just those fallen in service to our country."

Really? More than 11,000 Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury and the big Memorial Day beef is flag etiquette?

Perhaps the lack of respect for the dead is merely a natural next step once the living have been forgotten, mistreated and abandoned. Here's where mention of the 67,000 veterans that are homeless in the U.S. on any given night might be poignant. As would a reminder that 1.5 million more veterans remain "at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing." But really those numbers are so huge that they cease to have any meaning at all. I'd rather talk about one man.

I want to talk about Michael.

I met Michael at a homeless shelter where I worked. He's a Vietnam veteran and a retired Nurse. I've actually written about Michael before but I didn't make mention of what a mess he is on Memorial Day. Actually "mess" doesn't do Michael's Memorial Day mood justice, even cataclysm doesn't cover it. Still, Michael's ordinary. He's white; more than 85% percent of the U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were white. He was a volunteer; about 2/3 of them were. Of course the argument can be made that living in a time of conscription means that no one can technically volunteer. Signing up was often a way of arranging your own fate -- to some small degree -- before someone else arranged it for you. Too bad Vietnam vets like Michael don't have the same power over their destiny now that they are left with both physical and mental scars from the war.

I tried to see Michael this past weekend. And he tried to see me. He couldn't, the Memorial Day Joke got him and he was a mess. In his case that "A Vietnam veteran walks up to an Iraq veteran Joke" is particularly painful. See, the Iraq veteran in the joke is Michael's son Vincent. And Vincent is dead.

I played phone tag with the veterans Administration trying to find out how many members of the military have children who likewise serve their country in time of war. I never did get the number but anecdotally folks in the know seemed to think that the military is at least as multi-generational as other professions.

The problem with soldiering over dentistry, lawyering, construction work, or any other job is that the miserable legacies exacted by the former outstrip anything any other occupations might put a person through at work. In Michael's case, having his helicopter shot out of the sky and seeing his friends die should have been enough to motivate a grateful nation to take good care of him. But after sitting in a homeless shelter -- on any given Memorial Day -- it's hard to believe the nation is grateful at all.

Especially after guys like Michael give up guys like Vincent years later in Fallujah.

If the U.S. can't or won't pay back the fallen for their sacrifice, then it's time to admit the joke played on our military isn't funny and stop asking that the sacrifice be made in the first place.




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