Our Veterans: Damaged Goods with Dangerous Minds?

The “intelligence assessment” issued to local law enforcement by the Department of Homeland Security last week, claiming Iraq and Afghanistan veterans may be ripe for recruitment by violent extremist recruiters, was a disturbing glimpse into the psyche of some in the Obama administration.

The nine-page report, which contained no statistics or hard-facts, was offensive.  The report singled out veterans as being especially susceptible for right-wing recruitment because of their “trouble reintegrating into their communities.” In addition, Timothy McVeigh — the Oklahoma City bomber — was the only veteran cited as an example.

When challenged on it, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano issued a non-apology, apology (“to the extent you read it as an accusation…an apology is owed”) and said the report was an “assessment, not an accusation.”  

Which is like saying, “[I]t will be Mr. Brown (the veteran) in the dining room (our country) with the candlestick (combat training used to harm fellow countrymen)/” Sounds like an accusation to me.  The report said it all: our veterans are damaged goods, armed with combat training, and ripe with right-wing sensibilities.

The report is offensive on two fronts.  First, without any statistical backing, it singles out veterans as being an especially susceptible demographic to violent extremism. In an era where weapons training can be obtained with a Google search — why single out veterans?  Why not high-school dropouts? Or drug addicts? Or other stressful positions like police officers, ER doctors, or fire-fighters? Veterans seem to be the easiest to label, without trifling with details.

Second, if you actually think about it, veterans are less likely than most other demographics to be involved in anti-government, anti-constitutional groups.  It is the veteran who swears allegiance, in word and deed, to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The war veteran, who has put his life on the line for his country, understands the enduring nature of this oath and will defend it. Ask a veteran.

But it appears that no one in DHS asked a veteran, which is part of what makes this report especially frustrating. I don’t believe its authors are necessarily anti-veteran or anti-military.  Instead, I think this report exposes a dangerously naivety and willingness — at the highest levels of government — to buy into the Hollywood portrayal of veterans as disaffected, disgruntled, and damaged goods waiting to explode on a vulnerable homeland.  

As a chairman of a veterans organization that follows news about the war and veterans very closely, the slow creep of pious pity and self-righteous sympathy for “those helpless veterans” is nauseating.  Or, to borrow a phrase, we’re witnessing the quiet bigotry of no expectations toward Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.  

While Vietnam veterans were disgracefully shamed in plain view, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans receive genuine public support, but underlying questions about their stability and mental health continue to be raised with little to no basis for them.

Unfortunately, the “vets as victims” mantra comes from the top. President Obama rarely talks about the successes of our troops, their hard-fought victories, or the virtue of their service.  Instead, every speech he gives on the subject includes calls to “support them,” “take care of them,” and “give them the treatment they deserve.”  And while no one disagrees with this — most especially veterans — the constant victimization of veterans has a lasting effect on how the public views America’s warriors.

Hollywood doesn’t help, with its haplessly out-of-touch Iraq movies like Stop-Loss and Redacted — the pathetic equivalents of Platoon and Full-Metal Jacket for the Vietnam generation.  And if you haven’t seen this outrageous video from Penn State Student Affairs, then you may have forgotten how many in academia view our returning “worrisome” war veterans.  Only after fierce criticism did they remove it from their site.

But it’s not just academia, Hollywood, and the White House.  We do it to ourselves. Some Iraq and Afghanistan veterans groups — while purporting to speak for veterans — play up the fact that veterans are “alone” and unable to reintegrate back into society, systematically elevating the tragic cases of returning veterans — thereby creating a public perception that all veterans are damaged goods with dangerous minds. They mean no harm — only the best for veterans — but these groups don’t understand the lasting effects of their “help us,” “take care of us,” “fund us” attitudes.

Let me be clear: the effects of war are real.  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), lifelong wounds, external and internal, are all real.  Thousands of veterans have returned severely wounded and will need daily support for the rest of their lives.  It is our country’s duty to care for them and provide them the very best.

But, in addition to supplying them the best medical benefits possible, we owe it to these veterans to portray them as the heroes they are and ensure they are honored and accepted — not feared or scorned — when they return from the battlefield.  

These men and women — wounded or not — are the best our country has to offer, willing to put their lives on the line for their country and sacrifice for ideals larger than themselves. While their peers chase paychecks and pop-stars, veterans chase insurgents and terrorists for small paychecks and no fame. Veterans love their country, and most want nothing but respect, honor, and recognition of the successes and victories they have earned.

I don’t think we should sweep the issues facing veterans under the rug.  My argument is a matter of emphasis, not exclusion. If we don’t celebrate and glorify the sacrifice and service of our military veterans, the public, with the help of groups with agendas, will write its own war stories.

This generation of veterans, as with those who came before, is the best this country has to offer.  We are not extremists. We are not victims of war. We are not damaged goods with no prospect for success.  To the contrary, we have served our country and our Constitution.  We have succeeded on the battlefield.  And we will return home, day by day, to make our communities a better place.

This will be the legacy of our warrior generation.