Monday, February 04, 2008

The Rift

I don’t know how widespread it is or how deep and broad, but from my own casual observations I sense a definite rift between the military and the citizens we serve. I was reminded of it yet again the other day during one of my “gym conversations” with an American civilian who has never “served.”

The things he said, the resentful unsympathetic feelings he espoused towards veterans remind me of some of the conversations my dad brought home with him from his fellow GM factory workers after he retired from the Air Force in 1971.

My dad got out after 20 years, returning to his home state of Michigan. After a lot of sweat, tears and more than a little bit of self-exaggeration, he managed to wrangle a position as a journeyman electrician in Saginaw Steering Gear. Back then that giant factory still fell under General Motors.

You would think that a bunch of blue-collar red-blooded American factory workers would have respected my dad’s years in the armed forces after having done his part to keep America safe while they paid off their homes, bought cottages “up north,” put money in the bank, and accrued lots of toys like snowmobiles and speed boats. But no, it wasn’t like that all.

Instead, he continually had to listen to many of them disparage him for “double-dipping;” accusing him of having sat on his ass and drinking coffee for 20 years while still being able to collect that GM paycheck too. They actually resented him his small military pension and free “medical benefits.” Once they had him fired up, he’d get up in their smirking faces and tell them the crap he had to put up with during those “easy” 20 years—the asshole bosses, the tense working conditions, the low pay, the nonstop yearly moves from base to base, to name a few. Few of them could figure out why he was so angry. They'd shrug uncomfortably, wondering why he took so seriously what they saw as simple good-natured kidding; and now that I've been through it after my own long military career, I too know EXACTLY why he took their jibes so personal.

As for me, I’ve tended to avoid civilians over the years. Generally, I tend to seek out friends among my fellow vets. This is because I don’t understand nor can I relate well to my fellow non-military citizenry. They seem wrapped up with petty unimportant things. They haven’t been “anywhere,” haven’t “seen what I’ve seen,” and for the most part aren’t interested in “the big picture.” What’s more, many refuse to acknowledge the evil in the world waiting to rise up and destroy all they hold dear. Yet some, too many, are willing to belittle what we do, demean our sacrifice, and begrudge us the pay and benefits we’ve earned.

As I said up top, I got into this exact subject with a fellow gym rat the other day. He wasn’t even talking to me but I couldn’t help but to overhear his snide comments. With great derision he vocalized his “problem” with vets, saying they draw disability pay even as he KNOWS: “Many of them are in better shape than I am!”

I looked over to see if it was really worth my time and effort to confront him. Normally, we get along famously, so I was a bit surprised at the profundity of his umbrage. Although not directed at me personally, his ire was palpable and when he continued on in the same cantankerous tone I decided, ‘Okay, that’s enough!’

I spoke up, “Hey, Jake; what’s your problem Man? I don’t get you. Can you explain this bitterness you have for me and people like me? Why exactly do you think we don’t deserve our pensions and disability compensation?”

He came over and stood a few feet from me, which suited me just fine.

“I just don’t see why my tax dollars should go to paying all these guys all this money. I don’t get paid anything for MY physical problems. I worked too and got hurt. It ain’t right!”

“Jake, you CHOSE not to enlist. It seems to me that you really don’t know what you’re talking about, because you didn’t do what we had to do. Do you think military service is easy? If it was all cake, why aren’t people signing up in droves to do it? I’m not saying my 27 years was all hard time, but a lot of it wasn’t easy; and it CERTAINLY wasn’t easy on my family. Just the same, it’s all I ever wanted to do since I was four years old.”

He hemmed and hawed a little. “Well, I know this guy. He brags about being 100% disabled and makes all this VA money, yet he’s a scratch golfer! He’s a big fraud man. There ain’t nothing wrong with that asshole. Why should my taxes go to paying him when he’s just fine?”

I’d heard that one before and knew exactly what to say: “I have no idea what this guy’s conditions might be. Not everyone’s disabilities are even physical. Still, if you think he’s a fraud, turn his ass into the VA or to Social Security. Hell, I’ll do it. They’ll investigate him if they deem it a possible fraud case. I hate guys like that too, IF they are frauds. They give all of us a bad name. In fact, what’s his name? I’ll do it myself!”

More hemming and hawing: “Well, I haven’t seen him for a while. But still!”

He went on, “If I’d have known about all these great benefits and all this money you guys make after only 20 or so years, I’d have signed up too!” he laughed uneasily.

I chided him. “I wouldn’t have wanted your sorry ass in the suck with me anyway Jake. Do you think when I was 17 years old I said to myself, ‘Man, I can’t WAIT to join the Marines, do my 30, and THEN, get all that free medical and that FAT pension!’ That’s the kind of thinking you get from the damned officers Man! If I really cared a crap about money and my long term future I would have gone to college and became a lawyer or a damned dentist; or hell, I would have become an officer for all that BIG zero pay.”

I was cleaning his clock, so he changed tack: “It’s not just the pension and the money Man. I’m tired of all this hero stuff. No one makes anybody serve in the military, so why all the hero talk? It’s the same for cops and firemen; no one tells them they HAVE to do that work.”

“Exactly! Maybe you don’t realize it, but the REAL heroes, like the guys awarded Silver Stars and Purple Hearts; THEY don’t refer to themselves as heroes. So don’t get mad at them for being labeled AS such by OTHER people.”

I had him on the ropes; he was relenting and I heard “surrender” in his voice as he continued: “I’m not saying that everyone doesn’t deserve the pension and such, but some of them don’t. I probably worked as hard as some of these guys and I don’t get squat.”

“So, let me get this straight. You’re mad because you didn’t know any better? And if you HAD known, you would have enlisted too? My God man! Who are you REALLY mad at, veterans like me who did 27 years doing a job that most Americans DON’T want to do or are UNWILLING to do; or are you mad at yourself, for not putting yourself through the same hell that I went through so you could be where I am today?” I cuffed him on the shoulder and grinned.

He just laughed.

I ended his tirade with my own finishing clincher: “You know what Jake? Basically, I think YOU are full of bovine kaka!”


Anonymous said...

I really like this post. I wish I could have been there for the last part...I'd have liked to seen you in action...hahaha.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hope, I don't write about the debates I LOSE... heh heh