Our duty

Jon Stewart wasn’t very funny last night. And his show has never been better.

Jon’s entire episode dealt with one issue; the debt America owes to its soldiers and their families, both as they serve, and when they return.  He had three guests.  The featured guest was Dakota Meyer, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient and Afghanistan veteran, who has created a foundation to provide scholarships for veterans.  His other two guests were former staff sergeant Meg Mitchum, and former specialist Daniel Hutchinson, both Iraq war combat medics.

The two medics were terrific.  Mitchum was affable and charming; she was clearly thrilled to be on the Daily Show, and she kept sneaking looks at the camera.  And she told an amazing story; about treating three soldiers at once, victims of an IED, keeping ’em all alive, and stabilizing ’em until the helicopter could get them out of there.  Hutchinson, on the other hand, seemed angry, as indeed he should be; he talked about treating gunshot wounds in the middle of a firefight.  He has applied for a job as a school nurse.  He can’t get it, because, officially, he’s not qualified.

No matter what the TV commercials say, military training does not always meet the specifications for the certifications you need to get civilian jobs.  Mitchum, officially, qualifies at the level of a basic EMT; she’s ‘qualified’ to take vital signs.  Obviously, her combat experience involves practicing medicine at a far more advanced level.  She should be able to find employment at the intermediate or advanced level, perhaps even at the level of paramedic.  She can’t.  She could, of course, take an EMT course and qualify that way, but requiring her to do so would be redundant and foolish; she’d have to spend two years, hundreds of hours to qualify to a job she’s perfectly capable of doing right now.  At least, seems to me, being able to practice combat medicine, keeping desperately wounded soldier alive with bullets whistling around your head, should mean you’re able to ride around in an ambulance.

And this seems so fixable, so easy to solve.  Congress could do it; could pass a bill requiring civilian certifying agencies to take into account combat experience.  Could even pass a more detailed bill, specifying which levels of experience equal which kinds of certification.  And not to get all partisan on y’all, but this is also a partisan issue; a bill doing all that is currently stalled in the US Senate, blocked by Republican senators threatening a filibuster. It’s a billion dollars; they say we can’t afford it.  They were perfectly willing to put the Iraq war on a credit card; sorry, but they can sure as heckfire find some money for the guys who fought it.

I’m sorry, but I’m going to say this too: I question their patriotism.  I don’t care how many American flag pins you wear on your jacket lapel; if you block legislation intended to provide needed aid for returning soldiers, you are not a patriot. I don’t usually go there; I’m inclined generally to give folks the benefit of the doubt, and I try to resist looking at most issues as black and white.  I like nuance, I like ambiguity.  Not on this one.  We have no more important moral obligation than the one we owe to returning soldiers.

Personally, I would like to suggest that any Congresspeople blocking legislation to provide employment for returning veterans should be tasked with field-testing experimental parachute designs.  Or, say, how about this: a law that says that every nickel spent on campaign TV ads, they have to match with a donation to Dakota Meyer’s foundation.  That could reduce the number and frequency of political ads on TV. Win win.

Because Meyer was Jon’s last guest on The Daily Show last night, and man was he impressive.  Just an honest, smart ex-Marine, who showed his courage and integrity on the field of combat, has written a terrific book about it, and now wants to give back by providing educational opportunities for returning soldiers.

Here’s what I find embarrassing: twice as many military families qualify for and receive food stamps than civilian families.  Soldiers’ educational benefits have been cut.  Combat deployments last longer than ever before, and some soldiers have been deployed over and over, in combat again and again. We’re fighting unnecessary wars on the cheap.  We’re tasking soldiers with jobs they’re not trained for, and then we stare in amazement as they do those jobs brilliantly.

I read a book a few years ago about the defeat of the Spanish Armada.  It was one of the most glorious military victories in English history, and one of the crowning achievements of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.  And when we think of Elizabeth, we associate her with the age of Shakespeare and Bacon and Ben Jonson, we think of the Virgin Queen, beloved by her people.  But she was also a terrible cheapskate, a brutally callous tightwad.  She refused to pay the sailors who had saved her nation.  Hundreds of them were confined aboard their rotting ships at harbor, the ships that had defeated, against all odds, the greatest navy in the world back then.  Men died, of scurvy, of typhoid, of dysentery and of sheer starvation, while she bought herself fancier and fancier gowns and wigs and jewelry.  Reading that account has colored my entire view of Queen Elizabeth.  Her positive achievements pale in comparison. She refused to honor the fighting men who had saved her reign.  I cannot imagine anything more contemptible.

I do think, right now, as the federal government looks to reduce spending, that military budgets can and should be cut.  I don’t think we need to maintain seven golf courses in Guam.  I don’t see a lot of reason for a continual military presence in Japan, or Germany.  I don’t think we need an air force base in Salt Lake City.

But what we cannot cut, what we must in fact expand, is pay for military families, and money for education and job training for returning veterans.  These men and women served our country with integrity and courage and honor.  We need to respond in kind.

I know a lot of former and current soldiers, and I know they don’t necessarily want charity.  They don’t want to get rich.  They want a job, they want adequate pay to support their families, they want good medical care, they want an opportunity.  If Congress does nothing else the rest of this term, they can at least do this: pass a bill to increase veterans’ benefits.  Anything else is unAmerican.




3 thoughts on “Our duty

  1. Julie Saunders

    I’m ashamed to admit it took my little brother joining the Army before military and veterans’ issues really started to mean anything to me. I just hope that as more and more people talk about this stuff, the folks at home will be less dense than I was.

    I completely agree with your thoughts on this topic.

  2. Bill

    Great post, Eric. As usual.

    As someone who served in the military myself, I can attest to the difficulties that are experienced by many veterans in applying the skills and certifications earned in the military to civilian settings. It’s unjustifiable that these discrepancies and difficulties exist.

    My particular skill set – basic construction skills – is different, though, from these skills, and readily found acceptance in the civilian world. I received a forklift training certification, for example, and could have easily parlayed that into a job, if necessary. We were also encouraged to pursue crossover certifications, and the military frequently provided opportunities for mentoring, course work, and testing to become certified as journeymen/apprentices in various fields.

    My brother, however, is in exactly the same situation as these folks. He spent time in Iraq as a combat medic. He returned from war zone but decided to stay in the Army because there was no way he could find a job with comparable skills and benefits in the civilian world. It is true that in medicine the skill set is relatively analogous. But combat medics are also trained in a very specific field of medicine, and they deal with a relatively limited number of ailments (the guy on the daily show had had limited experience with a “tummy ache” for example, which, while a silly example, is something he would have to deal with as a school nurse – that is, dealing with people who are not able to articulate their particular ailments due to lack of experience and vocabulary). It is clear that they could handle the emergency situations very well. It would be very easy, on the other hand, for medics who wish to become certified in a civilian setting to receive a few extra hours of training on how to deal with a “tummy ache” or other ailments frequently seen in a civilian setting but not in a military/combat setting. All that would take is some additional funds. And we all know where that points.


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