The White House
Almost never frets,
About the lies
It told to vets.

This Memorial Day, I’d like to salute the young people who continue to enlist in our armed forces.

Their initial training reinforces their sense that America is beset with many ill-motivated enemies who hate our freedom, our wealth, and our religions. And so soldiers are taught to hate and fear in return. These emotions are sometimes needed to beef up sagging morale before performing duties like shooting, bombing, repairing, loading, driving, flying, scrubbing, and all the other dangerous or routine duties that our troops are expected to carry out.

All that hokey xenophobia can get old, especially when you’re directed to destroy people’s homes and livelihoods and to shoot some folks who don’t seem to have much to do with any enemy’s war efforts. Causing people to starve and freeze can be a bummer. So can a growing realization that you yourself may be breathing depleted uranium or uncontrolled toxic fumes that are part and parcel of any military activity.

The U.S. Army/Flickr

The U.S. Army/Flickr

For troops who never get close to combat, the soldiering life may seem OK. It beats unemployment, part-time coal mining, stocking shelves at Walmart, dealing drugs, shoveling manure, and a number of other commonplace civilian alternatives. You get to work outdoors, enjoy free food, lodging, and medical care, and earn a pension after 20 years. If you’re an immigrant, there may be a path to citizenship.

Combat’s different. The chances of coming home unscathed, or at all, are lower. Suicide stalks the barracks of foreign deployments and the garages of returnees. PTSD haunts our vets, their families, co-workers, and friends. Premature disability and death lurk like roadside bombs, even for those who show no outward signs of trauma.

Then there’s the fallout from those loud IED explosions. Physical wounds may send you home, but psychological wounds and brain trauma mainly send you into drugs, redeployment, and depression.

And the threat of rape is increasingly hard for the brass to ignore. According to the Pentagon itself, one in four women in the military has been sexually assaulted or raped and about 1 percent of men in uniform suffer this fate every year.

Disillusionment also takes its toll. Many vets return confident that they have done their heroic best for the nation, but countless others feel disgusted by the destruction of families, cities, economies, cultures, relationships, traditions, and humanity that they engaged in.

The most dramatic of these epiphanies was that of Pvt. Bradley Manning, accidentally exposed at age 22 to the classified computer cornucopia of American war crimes, duplicity, treachery, and lying that has dominated our recent wars and diplomacy. He chose to reveal all this to the public, risking a lifetime in prison. Manning’s not in line for a medal, but he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.

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William A. Collins

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.

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