Happy Veteran’s Day
Broke? Stuck at home? Join the Army! See the world!
God, I was stupid at 18.
A lackluster high schooler– I was one of those “He’s just so smart but never applies himself!!!” students– I ended my time in K-12 by taking a fabulous month-long trip to Europe and then sitting around my sister’s house wondering what I would do with my life. I didn’t have any scholarships, certainly didn’t have a job, lived in a smallish city in Oregon with high unemployment and few options.
The local Army recruiter, Staff Sergeant Stevens, had been sniffing around me for a couple of years; if there was one thing I succeeded at it was foreign language and recruiting a translator for the Armed Services meant a big bonus in his paycheck. I decided to give him a call and see what his pitch was.
Two weeks later I was on a plane to Ft. Leonard Wood, MO. I was in the Army.
Looking back there were definitely a myriad of reasons why I joined the armed services. I was a language-geek and theater fag bound and determined to prove that he could hang with the hetero meatheads; I was destined to attend the best-funded and most effective language school in the world. I cannot deny, however, that I joined because I wanted school money (the GI Bill) and a job. I didn’t really have many options other than working in a gas station in my hometown, and I chose the option with the health plan.
My story isn’t unique. Nearly two-thirds of those that join the military come from counties whose income are below the national median. Poverty isn’t just cruel to those who suffer under it, it is also a useful tool when providing people eager for an opportunity to advance and live easier, more comfortable lives. While your recruiter may try to play up ideas of selfless service and honorable duty in order to cast joining the military as a higher calling, the simple fact is that poverty is what leads people to join the Army. Ultimately, to kill people and to perhaps be killed.
We are left with few options and end up gambling with our lives in order to get ahead.
“Happy Army Birthday, PFC Finkenbinder.”
My time in the Army started off all right. My first year was relatively quiet; even though a Bush was in office we weren’t openly hostile with any particular country and I was thinking that the desk job promised by my recruiter might be a reality. I was attending the best language school in the world, the Defense Language Institute, and was being paid to live in beautiful Monterey, California. Sure, drill sergeants are dicks and I had to get up at 5:00 AM every day to go do pushups in the mud, but overall life was good.
Even the fact that I was gay didn’t particularly matter. I was surrounded by folks in military intelligence, most of whom had college degrees, and even if it wasn’t open knowledge to our command I routinely frequented gay bars (underage even, what a wastrel I was) and spent quite a bit of time visiting other soldiers in their barracks (yeah, barracks sex is almost as hot as porn would have you believe).
One year after I joined the Army, I took a shower after PT, put on my uniform, and looked at myself in the mirror. “Happy Army birthday, PFC Finkenbinder. Only four years left to go. This will be all right.”
I walked out to my barracks’ smoking section and lit up. Another soldier joined me, and before I could even greet him, he stammered out “Did you hear? They attacked the World Trade Center.”
Freedom… to do what?
I was the victim of very unrealistic idealism. We are taught that the US Armed Services are meant and used to preserve our freedoms and defend us from tyranny. We are indoctrinated to believe that our military’s strength is what keeps us free and happy to live our lives as we choose. The reality is anything but; as I found out in the years since September 11th, 2001 “freedom” and “tyranny” are often jingoistic terms employed by propagandists in order to convince our country that sending our soldiers overseas to die is necessary to keep safe our own way of life. This is partly true, but the rights that we fight for are rarely those constitutional freedoms like the right to free speech; all too often the right that we fight for is to buy cheap gas at the pump and buy manufactured goods made with exploited resources.
Does anyone still think that the war in Iraq was for the cause of freedom? It is now widely acknowledged as a war that benefit few with an alarming cost in lives. The war lined the pockets of defense contractors and arms manufacturers; toppling Saddam Hussein assured that we would have a government in place that would free up what we now know to be the largest oil reserves in the world. Considering the appallingly high death toll, in both the lives of soldiers and civilians, as well as the rampant human rights abuses on the part of the US and the new Iraqi government (to include the slaughter of thousands of LGBT Iraqis), we bought access to those resources in blood and torture. Our lives equal nothing more than dollar signs to those calling the shots.
Is this really what freedom means? Is this what my service bought?
Legacies of War
The war was difficult and I sometimes find it hard to talk about. I was in the 3rd Infantry Division, which took part in the war by being the first large Army unit to cross the border from Kuwait into Iraq. During that time I contributed to the deaths of people I didn’t know and participated in interrogations of Iraqi civilians that, while they didn’t involve torture, caused me to question my presence in this impoverished yet beautiful country. By the time I left, I had seen corpses that had died by violence for the first time. I had been shot at, and I had spent every night for eight months with my rifle in arm’s reach, going to bed every night afraid that I would have to use it.
After I left the Army, the effects of my tour were palpable. I have ever since been a victim to almost nightly nightmares. I have had my bouts with addiction, having fled two different cities in order to escape two different drugs. Loud noises terrify me and I am prone to bouts of depression. All of these things I can tie back to my months spent away from home, months where I feared for my life every day and was exposed to violence, depredation, and death.
All this in the name of imperialism and money.
Thank you for your service! Now fuck off.
Just about every modern conflict the US has involved itself in has been for similar purposes; maintaining the financial bottom line of our economic and imperialist interests. Whether Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, or Afghanistan, it has always been to the benefit of the capitalists who fund our elections to have soldiers like me go off and die. If they survive, we shake their hands, give them a few medals, and send them on their way.
But I’m not the only one who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. About 12.5% of veterans, an unusually high rate in our population, suffer from PTSD. If you are a female soldier, the reasons for PTSD are compounded. A third of the women who join the military will be assaulted physically or sexually by their comrades-in-arms, meaning that they leave the military with deep psychological wounds.
What are we doing to help them?
Not very much. Getting disability for PTSD is a long, trying process with bureaucratic red tape and vanishing funding. I have been trying to get my disability for the past two years with little to show for it. It will likely be years longer before I get compensation for the emotional scars that I bear. Our society is only too happy to thank service members by wishing them “Happy Veteran’s Day!” but when it comes to the essential services necessary to heal the damage that has been done to us, we have very few real solutions.
Medical treatment is the least of many veterans’ concerns. Last year, a study done indicated that while 9% of Americans are veterans, 15% of homeless Americans had served in the US Armed Forces. Far from getting us ahead, military service for many can mean inheriting a host of mental problems and addictions which prevent us from taking care of ourselves and leave us on the streets.
Happy Veteran’s Day
In the end, I suppose what I want to communicate is complex. My anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist comrades may find it easy to scoff at Veteran’s Day as a glorification of nationalism and the celebration of murderers. I can’t argue with them on all points; I know what I did while serving and regret many of the things my service meant. However, we can vow to resist the military industrial complex and its excesses and abuses while still remembering their victims. Yes. I did things I regret while in the service. But I also regret the trick that was played on me; the propaganda and lies that snared me like it snares so many other poor Americans with no other options.
The victims of war, in short, are not just those who are slain but those who are left behind. When you say “Happy Veterans Day” today, please remember that for every veteran you thank for their service there is another veteran who is in pain and needs help. When you pass homeless people on the street today, stop and wonder if that person has served; stop and wonder if their Veteran’s Day is happy.
When I wish my former battle-buddies a “Happy Veterans Day,” I am often actually saying “I’m sorry. I know it hurts. What can I do to help?”