Perhaps only ancient Sparta claimed to support its military more than the United States. From the “soldiers get priority boarding” ritual that happens only in American airports, to elections where a decision not to serve is forever held against a candidate, there are daily reminders that “the troops” are a presence in our society like few others.
The desire to claim a piece of that presence leads to elaborate lies, known as “stolen valor .” People buy regulation uniforms and walk through society showing off medals, telling fake war stories, and accepting unearned thanks. They want the juice without having endured the squeeze. They are out there this Veteran’s Day, and they are to be loathed.
But while some fake service, in too many ways society fakes support.
- We watch the troops die because of long waits  for care at U.S. veterans’ hospitals.
- We pass by 40,000  veterans homeless on any given night. More than half suffer from an untreated mental illness that helped put them on the streets.
- We know some 460,000 vets from the Iraq and Afghan wars suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder  (PTSD); another 260,000 have Traumatic Brain Injuries. Statistics are hard to come by from America’s other wars, but a working figure for PTSD out of Iraq and Afghanistan of about 20 percent  means millions of Vietnam and Korea vets are suffering, too. But all to often, they suffer in silence because they are injuries we cannot readily see.
- We read  that military suicides increase among those who suffer brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder.
- We are silent in the face of 20 veteran/soldier  suicides a day.
These are just numbers until you put a face on them. In my case, the face belonged to Brian Edward Hutson (name changed).
I heard  about Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson’s death at breakfast and walked over to his trailer. As a State Department foreign service officer, I spent a year embedded with the Army in Iraq at several smaller forward operating bases (FOBs). Hutson had put the barrel of his rifle into his mouth, and with the weapon set for a three-round burst blew out the back of his skull. I saw the fan spray on the wall, already being washed off by the Bangladeshi cleaning crew. The bleach solution they used was smearing more than cleaning, and the Bangladeshis had little stomach to wring out the mop heads all that often. The blood smelled coppery and though I never smelled such an odor before or since I can summon it into my mind at any time I wish, and other times when I don’t.
The ritual prescribed by regulation was the same, whether the death was by suicide or in combat. The chapel had rows of chairs set up, much as it would in Ohio or Georgia for a wedding, only at the front of the room was a wooden box with holes for the U.S. and the unit flag and a slot to stand the deceased’s rifle. Hutson’s human remains were likely already on their way home. The box was made of plywood, stained and varnished like paneling, and reminded everyone of a high school wood shop project. The dead man’s boots stood on either side of the rifle, with his helmet on top.
There was a program with the official Army photo of the deceased, posed in front of an American flag—you could see a few red pockmarks on the side of his face, a chicken pox scar on his forehead. All these photos showed a vacant stare, same as every high school graduation photo. The chaplain read the 23rd Psalm.
The required speeches were strained because the senior officers who had to speak at these events rarely knew, or could possibly know among the many troops under them, the deceased. The dead man’s job had something to do with radios and most present didn’t say much beyond that. The eulogy thus rang a bit hollow, but you reminded yourself the words were not necessarily intended for you and that the colonel may not have been the best man for the job. He was, though, a responsible man, trying hard to do something impossible, and he probably felt bad for his lack of conviction, and that he was not a Pericles or Lincoln.
The last speaker was by tradition someone acquainted with the deceased. In this ceremony, things were especially awkward. The dead man had taken his life after only a few months in the Army and even less time at this FOB. Nobody had befriended him, and this being the third suicide on the FOB made the whole thing especially grim. The ceremony felt rushed, like an over-rehearsed school play where the best performance had taken place the night before.
But sometimes things surprised you, maybe because of low expectations, maybe because every once in awhile somebody stood up and said just what needed to be said. A young Captain rose without notes. “I was his team leader but I never really knew him. Brian was new here. He didn’t have no nickname and he didn’t spend much time with us. He played Xbox a lot. We don’t know why he committed suicide. We miss him anyway because he was one of us. That’s all I have to say.”
The ceremony ended with the senior enlisted person calling the roll for the dead man’s unit. Each member answered, “Here, Sergeant Major” after his name was called. That was until the name called was the dead man’s. “Brian Hutson?” Silence. “Brian E. Hutson?” Silence. “Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson?” Silence. Brian was not there and almost none of us had known him but yes, that day, at that place, we all missed him anyway.
We will hear a lot this Veterans Day about supporting the troops and thanking them for their service. Please do those things; they deserve it.
But don’t traffic in empty words. We best remember Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson by taking care of the brothers and sisters of his we created. If our nation insists on being so quick to send men and women into harm’s way, then it best face its obligation to take care of them beyond early boarding and discounts on wings ‘n beer. Food, shelter, health care, pre-/post enlistment counseling—that’s how you support the troops on Veterans Day, and every other day. One less fighter plane, a few less tanks, that would pay for much of what is needed.
For all the talk this Veteran’s Day about how much we owe those who serve, no one ever demands we pay up.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well : How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and Hooper’s War : A Novel of WWII Japan. He is also a regular contributor to TAC.
Follow him on Twitter @WeMeantWell