As I thanked them for that service, I also asked them about a common phrase you hear in relation to the military: What’s the best way to support our troops? Regularly, the veterans told me that support isn’t about rote declarations of gratitude or blindly pledging allegiance. It’s about protecting our troops when they can’t protect themselves.
That may sound ridiculous when we are talking about people who are trained to protect us, but it isn’t. While we have been brought up to think that nothing is more patriotic than serving our country, we are increasingly learning that our country often doesn’t do a good job of serving our troops and veterans back. In fact, it seems the US military is set up to ensure that our country’s lowest level, frontline protectors are also among our country’s most vulnerable.
Part of that is because of our legal system, and what is commonly known as the Feres Doctrine. The result of a 1950 Supreme Court case called Feres v. United States, the Feres Doctrine states that the United States is not liable for any injury or harm that happens to an active-duty member of the armed forces. This is generally even true, with some exceptions, if the harm comes from the military’s negligence or even from an outright assault.
And then Stirling dropped the rhetorical bomb: “It’s a matter of discrimination.”
That’s right. Discrimination is not just about race. By definition it is the denial of rights to one group that are provided to others. And while the military is made up of Black, White, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, straight, LGBTQ+, people of all genders from all walks of life, this diverse group does not share the same rights the rest of us do. That means the only recourse our troops have to fight discrimination is those of us who aren’t in the military.
But even with all those accomplishments, the military never seemed to let these two forget one thing: They’re Black. “African Americans have served our country, every war we’ve had,” Pittard said. “But America hasn’t always served us.” He talked about how there are a number of different things on West Point’s campus named after Confederate General and American traitor Robert E. Lee, while sharing a painful story from his time at the military academy.
“I went into two of my classmates’ room. I thought I heard something, but (also thought I) couldn’t have heard that. Well, one of them ran out of the room and said, ‘Dana, I’m sorry for calling you the n-word.’ You know, we have worked together as freshmen and plebs. We are two months from graduation. And you still, all you see me as, is a n***er?”
Pittard, Tobin and others talked about how hard they felt it is to speak up for yourself when things like that (and worse) happen, because so much of the military is based on being strong and tough. And it is also baked into the military cake that the system is a meritocracy. These two beliefs can invite soldiers to ignore slights, insults, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and assaults, thinking it’s all part of being “a good soldier” who will get promoted.
But it isn’t true. The military is not a meritocracy. Just look at the numbers.
From what I’ve seen, some military leadership have done a much worse job of responsibly dealing with sexual assault and rape. I talked to Alex La Bruyere and Richard Fernandez, two Navy veterans who are also sexual assault survivors. Fernandez talked about his PTSD from being “boots on the ground in Iraq” and his struggle to deal with his trauma after he was sexually assaulted. He talked about how the military pressure to be a good soldier kept him from seeking help. “I kept it hidden because of my rank. What would it sound like for someone in my level to say, you know, I was also a survivor?”
“I have horrible nightmares. Like every night,” Navy veteran River Rainbow Hagg said. “I wake up in the morning and I can be really (messed) up. ….The moral bruising is knowing that I witnessed civilians being killed.”
Hagg has a story you have to see to believe. He tells it, in brief, in the episode. And you can see his two-part documentary about his life, “The Volunteers,” on YouTube.
As combat veteran Brittany DeBarros told me, too often the words “thank you for your service” are just words. The last story I covered for the episode may be the biggest and most visible example of that. I went to the US-Mexico border and met with some truly incredible people, some of whom I was able to meet only over FaceTime because they weren’t allowed into the United States. These were veterans who had been deported.
And before anyone gets all, “BUT THEY WERE CRIMINALS!!!” Yes, they committed crimes, but they served their time. Robert Vivar, who runs the Unified United States Deported Veterans Resource Center, introduced me to Alex Murillo, a Navy vet and DREAMer who was born in Mexico but grew up in Phoenix. Murillo told me he was charged with a non-violent cannabis offense in 2009 and served 37 months federal time.
“I fully expected to go home,” he said. “You know, my family, my kids are waiting for me back home.” But when he thought he was about to be released, the judge surprised him. “The judge said, ‘Mr. Murillo, I’m gonna go on record and say your service to your country’s to be commended. Thank you for your service. I’m gonna have to deport you.'”
Murillo’s story, along with those of the other veterans I met while making this episode, is why we can’t let the phrase “support our troops” become synonymous with “ignore the military’s injustices and mistakes.” Instead of just saying, “thank YOU for fighting,” we should get our own hands dirty, raise our voices and not stop until the battle is won.
We have to educate ourselves, get involved, and say no. No to wars that destroy innocent lives, no to the confederacy in every way, no to the Feres Doctrine, no to military sexual assault, no to homeless vets, no to discrimination, injustice and hate in the ranks. And for God’s sake, no to deporting those who serve for our freedom. Let’s bring them all home.
That is supporting our troops.
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