This post was originally written in July of 2016 in response to two ambush-style attacks by former military service members in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
For the second time in two weeks, a former service member has committed a heinous and horrifying attack on American soil. Are these the only crimes that have been committed in the past two weeks? Of course not. They are not even the only crimes that have been committed by veterans in the past two weeks.
This is not a political post, because I don’t write those. Not my area of expertise. This is not a commentary on race in America, because there are enough of those going around, some good (like this one from Jason Versey), some inflammatory. Whose side am I on? My father was a police officer and my brother-in-law and nephew are black. You better believe that all three of their lives matter to me and everyone in my family. I’m not choosing sides on this one, because I’m on humanity’s side.
No, this post is going in another direction, one that I touched on in a previous post about how a veteran’s military service does not automatically turn them into a killing machine, any more than a LEO’s profession or a person’s ethnicity turns them into a killing machine. There is a tendency to identify a veteran as one of three archetypes, mostly in the media, but sometimes in the veteran’s community.
After the previous post I mentioned, I had a good conversation with a fellow veteran, Casey Schoettmer. Casey works as an Employment and Training Specialist for qualifying veterans. As a military retiree, he certainly has a vested interest in the way that veterans are viewed, because that describes how he is viewed. Casey said something to me:
“The media really does a strange thing when it portrays us. I say that we’re only portrayed as three things: Villain, Victim, or Vindicator.”
Let that sink in for a minute. Five, eight, fifteen, or twenty-plus years of service, boiled down into three labels. Not father, or daughter, or radical, if that’s what fits. No, just three neat categories that a veteran should fit into. What has been seen in the news lately is the veteran as a Villain. I receive daily updates on news stories that are connected to veteran mental health; just this morning, there was an article about how police shootings draw attention to Veterans’ Mental Health, another highlighting the fact that both shooters were veterans, a look at the mind of the Baton Rouge shooter, and another about police shootings and American Veterans’ mental health. This is nothing new, of course, the focus is on current events, but Charles Whitman and John Allen Muhammad were both in the military. I was not around when killed 16 people at the University of Texas, but I recall the events around the DC Sniper shooting in 2002. While Muhammad’s service was mentioned, it was not highlighted as a cause or impetus for his rampage.
Another of the categories, roundly rejected by many veterans, is the idea of the veteran as a Victim. One that, because they deployed to combat, they are somehow broken or damaged in some way, and therefore must be given greater consideration. I experienced this a couple of months ago; at a weekend retreat that had attendees from a bunch of different backgrounds, one gentlemen said, “I was really looking forward to this weekend, hanging out with a bunch of veterans. Helping others is what I do…I have always wanted to help out the stray dog or the broken winged bird.” This is more closely aligned with how the social services or helping community sees veterans: fragile individuals that must be coddled and protected. And veterans often feed into this themselves; Casey described another scenario in which a veteran was told that he couldn’t raise chickens, possibly because it violated some type of community law or ordinance. The individual thought that he should be allowed to do it solely on the basis that he was a veteran. There are times when veterans buy into a sense of entitlement, that they are entitled to get what they want on the basis of their veteran status. I don’t know about you, but I only want what I was promised, and nowhere in my enlistment contract did it say that I would be able to raise a flagpole in my yard if my community laws prohibit it.
Strangely enough, the third label, Vindicator, or hero, is also rejected by many veterans I talk to. Liutenant Colnel Charles Kettles received the Congressional Medal of Honor a yesterday, decades after braving a hot LZ in order to extract 40 members of the 101st. In one article, Lt. Col. Kettles is said to have “focused on the other men involved in the rescue and said, ‘The only thing that really matters’ are the lives that were saved.” Look through the media accounts of those veterans, current and former, who received the Medal of Honor, and you’ll see a theme…it wasn’t about me, it was about my brothers. I’m not a hero, they were. I’ve talked about it before in other posts, most veterans reject the Vindicator label as much as they reject the Victim or Villain label.
Why is this? Because we’re just us. We’re screwed up, strong, goofy humans who defy description because we’re a bunch of individuals. We are not what we are labeled as, and we are not even what we seem to be sometimes. When I talk to veterans who are twisted up in their gut because of something they did or something they failed to do while deployed to combat, I suggest to them that they reject the label that they are giving themselves or the labels that others give them. We are not our actions; we are not monsters, although some have done some monstrous things. We are not heroes, although we may have done some heroic things.
What we are, is human. For me, American. The only V that I want to be labeled with, the only V that I accept, is the V that stands for Veteran.