Best Defense

What I’m doing today

The ugly truth behind the platitudes of our society.

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Best Defense is in summer reruns. This item originally appeared on May 25, 2015.

By Sebastian J. Bae
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

Last year, on the Friday before Memorial Day, I was robbed on the train to Brussels, losing most of valuables including my passport, wallet, and laptop. For four hours, I sat on the curb outside the U.S. embassy, negotiating with the off-hours staff through the metal security fence. Each offered condolences with measured amounts of compassion and sympathy. Yet, each conversation ended the same way — without papers, they couldn’t help.

Passing a Gatorade and map through the fence, the duty officer told me, “Sorry, Sergeant. We can’t do anything for you until the office reopens on Tuesday… There’s a homeless shelter not far from here, maybe they can help you.”

I gave six years of my life to Corps, fought a war in service to my country, and I was turned away like an unwanted houseguest. Until the holiday weekend ended, I was a man without a country, just another homeless veteran on the streets.

This is the ugly truth behind the platitudes of our society. “We support our troops” is reduced to a political slogan. “We remember” only carries meaning for the select few who have lost loved ones in a decade of war. “Thank you for your service” is an empty, polite gesture exchanged in airports with strangers.

James Fallows of The Atlantic highlights, “As a country, America has been at war nonstop for the past 13 years. As a public, it has not. A total of about 2.5 million Americans, roughly three-quarters of 1 percent, served in Iraq or Afghanistan at any point in the post-9/11 years, many of them more than once.”

Wearing the uniform should not enshrine veterans in a misguided hero worship or sense of entitlement. Yet, for the men and women who served in uniform, we find ourselves increasingly isolated from the society we are asked to kill and die for. I am reminded of a sign that hung over the gate of Camp Ramadi in Iraq: “America is not at war. The Marine Corps is at war; America is at the mall.”

Like Vietnam veterans, the post-9/11 generation of servicemen and women nurse a growing sentiment of isolation, resentment, and disconnection with the society they fought and bled for.

Washington sent us into combat without the adequate equipment or any semblance of a long-term strategy. Academics dissected our mistakes and failings with clinical precision. The media praised or demonized us, in pursuit of the next big story and higher ratings. But worst of all, American society has largely forgotten about us, pushed out of sight and out of mind. American society has adopted a “reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military — we love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them — has become so familiar that we assume it is the American norm.”

Nothing reflects this social blindness more than the empty holiday Memorial Day has become. Memorial Day is now an excuse for long weekend getaways, characterized by fireworks, concerts, and barbecues. Like a Kafkaesque nightmare, star-spangled tank tops have subverted the sober reality of a folded American flag on the mantle, a poor substitute for a loved one.

So, on Memorial Day, you will not find me at a barbecue sipping a cold beer on a lawn chair. I will be dusting off my dress blues from the closet, ribbons and badges on full display. I will snap an unforgiving belt together, snug around the waist where the years have not been kind. Then I will carry $25-worth of roses in my arms, walking down the long, neat aisles of Arlington Cemetery. I will lay flowers down at the graves of brothers and sisters long gone — a small reminder that they’re not forgotten.

Sebastian J. Bae served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a Sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. He received his Masters at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, specializing in counterinsurgency and humanitarian interventions. He holds the Marine co-chair on Best Defense’s Council of Former Enlisted.

Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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