Dispatch October 2008

"People, not chess pieces"

The author of a new book about the West Point class of 2002 looks into what kind of support our troops really want from us, and why so many of us have become accustomed to sacrificing so little

Probably nothing brought home to me the reality of this sacrifice like my conversation, more than four years after 9/11, in a Panera Bread restaurant outside Washington D.C., with Jenifer Bryant, the 25-year-old widow of Todd Bryant. We talked for quite a while, my recorder running, starting right at the beginning: What was Todd like? How did you meet? When were you married? She told me about the mutual friend who linked them up, and how they were engaged by March of Todd’s senior year at West Point. She told me about his resilient sense of humor, and his passion for the California fast food chain, “In-N-Out.” And then, about two hours into Jen’s story, we reached the part where, in the middle of her workday as a high school teacher, she was notified of Todd’s death.

“One of my students was in there [the principal’s office]. ... [A]nd then I just looked to my right, and there’s four or five officers standing, wearing their Class As. And one of them was one of the generals at Fort Riley.”

As I look at the transcript now, I relive the guilt, and the horror, and the wanting to know. Jen started to cry. I remember wondering if other people in the restaurant would conclude we were a couple. What a jerk, they might think. Breaking up with his girlfriend in a Panera Bread.

“I just hit my knees and I started saying, No, no, no. Don’t tell me. Don’t tell me. And I remember General Kearney, like, kneeling down beside me. And he took my hand. He just kept holding my hand. And I screamed. I kept saying, No! No! No!”

Why does the military subculture sacrifice so much, and the rest of us so little? Seven years into the war on terror, what can “We the People” be doing to truly “support the troops”?

Since I had the personal email addresses of many young Army officers as a result of writing In a Time of War, I thought I’d ask them. About two dozen wrote back. The voices I heard were polite, deferential, and careful—but also hurting.

“I can tell you how America should NOT support the troops,” wrote one West Pointer, an Iraq veteran who did not give me permission to use her name. “Those stupid yellow magnetic bumper stickers. ‘God Bless Our Troops’ signs.”

She went on to talk about being in an airport restaurant in her Army captain’s uniform on the way home from Iraq. A young man in civilian clothes stepped forward and paid for her meal.

“Then I found out it was an E-3 [an Army private first class], who was there picking up his buddy. He just said, ‘I remember my first day back. I know how it is ma'am. Have a good one.’ Made me want to cry. Again.”

“I can provide you an emphatic answer,” wrote Captain Mike Erwin, a veteran of tours in Iraq and Afghanistan who will be heading back soon to Afghanistan as a Special Forces officer. He wanted civilians to support charities for wounded soldiers. “Last year, I ran the NYC Marathon and raised $22,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project. This year, on Nov 22, I am running the JFK 50 Miler to continue my mission of raising money and awareness for this great organization that helps soldiers get reintegrated into life after suffering a significant injury. … If you can incorporate the website into the [article], that would be much more significant.

(Okay, Mike: http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/MikeErwin.)

I think I can boil much of what soldiers like these have told me into three categories.

First, they want civilians to find their own ways to serve and sacrifice. They recognize that we don’t need 10 million men and women in the U.S. military, but they do think we need millions of Americans eager to serve their country in other ways. We don’t normally go around saying “Thank you for your service” to our teachers and nurses and inventors, but that’s part of the kind of service they’re talking about.

And sacrifice. “If we didn't need oil anymore,” one captain wrote, “then we wouldn't have to fight wars to secure it. We could just stop caring about places like Iraq - kind of like we do with lots of other countries around the world (especially the ones in Africa). So, if I could ask folks to make a real sacrifice for the troops, I would ask them to use less energy. Buy a more fuel efficient car. Put more insulation in their house. Turn lights off. Live closer to where they work so they won't have to commute so far. Use mass transit even though it's inconvenient.”

“What can we do to support the troops?” a two-tour veteran officer emailed me. “Give them a nation that is worthy of protection. We, the Army, are giving you, the public, space and time to make America the type of nation that is worthy of defense.”

And they want Americans to exercise their rights. Todd Bryant used to love this quote, generally attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Even the officers I heard from who had strong political leanings one way or the other, above all wanted their fellow Americans to cast informed votes, question their government, speak their minds and vote their informed consciences. At the same time, I heard, “our sacrifice should never be politicized. We are not Republicans or Democrats; we are men and women, sons and daughters, fathers, and mothers. Protest the war if you would like, but support us, the troops, for we may not know you but we will risk our lives to defend you.”

Finally, and most important, the officers I talked with said that if civilians want to “support the troops,” they need to start by paying attention to the troops.

We’ve seen what happens when as a society, we don’t pay attention. A year and a half ago we were all embarrassed when we learned how some of our wounded warriors were being treated at Walter Reed; before that, we weren’t paying attention. A few years before that, we sent soldiers into harm’s way without the proper equipment they needed—armored humvees, and modern body armor, and later, next-generation mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles.

How did we stand by, allowing our soldiers to invade Iraq without the planning—the doctrine, the strategy the tactics, the “lessons learned”—that they needed to succeed?

Our soldiers get that if we had been paying attention, we wouldn’t have stood for it.

“Pretend you have a son or a daughter in our shoes,” one captain insisted. “We are people, not chess pieces.”

Seven years ago, Americans wanted to contribute—to serve and help their fellow citizens. The soldiers I’ve talked to recognize that the message our civilians received in response was basically: Thanks, but no thanks.

Instead, we were told:

Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida.

I encourage you all to go shopping more.

That kind of attitude costs our nation—costs its very soul. In a month, we will elect a new president, and a new government. Whether John McCain or Barack Obama wins the election, he will be leading an America in its eighth year of war. If I heard them correctly, our soldiers hope that the new president will lead a new national conversation about service and sacrifice.

For when we ask our young men and women to join the military and serve overseas—and to risk and sometimes give their lives in the process— we make a commitment. We tell them that we’ve got their backs. And if we don’t follow through on our end of the deal when they go abroad, we suggest that we think they are fools. And what’s even worse, if we send them to fight, and then simply quit paying attention, we break their hearts.

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