Stacy Bare recently published an article on Thomas Ricks’s blog discussing a growing and inflated sense of entitlement among veterans. I thought it was a good essay, but with all respect to Stacy for coming out and saying it, I thought it lacked some of the repugnant examples of veterans behaving badly. Particularly, I felt that it didn’t address a key issue: that soldiers’ outsize sense of entitlement starts long before they put on civilian clothes and attempt to take advantage of generosity.

Let me forewarn you: I’m not nearly as diplomatic or forgiving as Stacy, and maybe that stems from the fact that I’ve been serving in combat arms for the entirety of my career, and so I’m used to both whiny, entitled soldiers of the combat and non-combat variety (and when I say “soldier,” I don’t mean just enlisted people — it’s meant to be a catch-all term for everyone serving). As you will see, there are distinct differences. All of which is funny considering that, to the average civilian, a soldier is a soldier is a soldier. They just see the uniform. We, on the other hand, invent classifications and gradations with which to categorize and judge. Which I am going to do right now:

There have always been sustainers just as well as fighters, and yes, I get it, without sustainers we’d be incapable of fighting. My only argument is that there are a lot of them. Frankly, there are a lot more of them than fighters. If you think this is going to lead into some diatribe about my Paleo-diet warrior badass superiority, don’t worry. My only point is that, for there to be a supply support activity office or a forward area refueling/rearming point or a unit maintenance collection point, there have to be rear-echelon soldiers. Doctrinally (that is to say, in a war of movement), they’re literally dozens of miles behind the lines. However, in the current conflict, this has translated into massive bases and encampments from which many of these soldiers will never depart (that is, except for when they go on mid-tour leave or depart the combat zone entirely).

There are huge risks. During the height of the Iraq insurgency, our brigade’s support battalion had a senior sustainer NCO die when a 132mm rocket landed directly on top of her container housing unit. And there’s no denying that the sheer amount of time spent away from home – be it in the shop, on a field training exercise or a deployment – contributes to stress. But let’s not kid ourselves. The risks faced by living on Balad or BIAP or Bagram Air Field are minimal in comparison to the M1151 gunner driving through Sadr City in 2005 or the SAW gunner posted atop Hesco bastions in some hellish, forgotten platoon outpost somewhere in the Tangi valley or along the Pech river.

I bring up the Tangi valley because it was an absolute hell on earth. My best friend set up the first outpost in the Tangi in 2009, and his platoon suffered IED after IED, which killed or crippled a number of his men. When my friend finally got mid-tour leave, he delayed departure for a few days so that he could help process the personal effects of all his men who were so grievously wounded that they had been evacuated from theater. My battalion commander had sent me to Bagram to find information about a wounded Afghan policeman being treated in the Craig Joint Theater Hospital (I wrote about the trip here). In the process, my friend and I got to hang out at Bagram for a few hours and drink some Green Beans coffee. My friend told me a story:

Walking out of the main post Green Beans on the western side of Disney Drive, he overheard a conversation between some REMF and the Indian employee at Orange Julius, in which the soldier had thrown a fit about them not having had the particular flavor of ice cream he wanted. He then made the Indian gentleman make his drink with a bottle of water that the soldier provided, because (as the soldier put it) he “didn’t trust that haji water.”

Now, imagine the look on my friend’s face. They had been living on bagged rations and literally slinging lead for two months in a hellishly contested zone. There hadn’t been a night without indirect fire in weeks. They hit an IED every time they drove their trucks. Meanwhile, at Bagram: a soldier isn’t getting the exact flavor of Orange Julius he desires. A tragedy. This photo comes immediately to mind:

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The mature adult in me says that I should respect everyone’s combat deployment and the hardships therein, even if they were dissimilar to mine. The infantryman in me wants every one of you to know that, given the above anecdotes and the extent to which sustainers outmatch fighters in the Army, my inner rage monster hears entitled soft-skill veterans and says, “Get the fuck over yourself. It wasn’t that hard.”

However, infantrymen can be just as whiny and entitled when they want to be. In some ways I think they can be more whiny because, as opposed to expecting cushy environs when deployed or in the field, they instead return from said locales and want to strum the whiner’s lyre and sing about how unforgivably unfair and hard it all was. I’m guilty of it, too.

Here is an example of a sense of entitlement emerging among infantrymen during a deployment: there was a National Guard unit assigned to an adjacent U.S. base when I was living at the Sharana provincial headquarters. They had never updated their rolls for assigned interpreters, and they very rarely (if ever) went on missions. As such, there were 45 interpreters living on a company-size COP, and you can imagine an undersized DFAC packed full of hungry Afghans doing nothing all day long. You can imagine the reaction that Georgia National Guardsmen might have to said scene.

I won’t get into the racial aspects of it, but needless to say, when the Guardsmen had to wait in line behind Afghans, there were poopy faces all around. “This is fuckin’ BULLSHIT!” their XO said to me once. “Why the fuck am I waiting behind these fuckin’ people?”

Why indeed? And let’s not forget how unsatisfying that hot KBR meal was on such a star-lit wintery night. Because, as we all know, everyone in Afghanistan was getting such a hot, plentiful meal. No one was going hungry; no one was pulling security on some precipice. No one was doomed to live in that country for the rest of their lives.

I’m sure that every one of that company’s soldiers (besides the morbidly obese ones who wore maternity uniforms – no joke) could put a rucksack on their backs and walk a ways. They were combat arms soldiers. They were all volunteers. They were serving abroad. But did they have to be such babies about it? I used to ask this question to my soldiers in a rhetorical way: did you think it was going to be easy?

In the palatial showers of that U.S. base, I’d hear the same argument: “Why should I spend my time in this fucking country helping these fucking people? Why should I be away from my family?”

Well, simply put: because you volunteered. Because you signed the dotted line. It isn’t just about free first-class upgrades and anonymous handshakes in airports. It isn’t just about the faux-patriotic tumescence of Applebee’s discounts on Veterans’ Day. You signed up for the job, and that job happened to place you in an uncomfortable situation or an austere environment. If you were a sustainer, it was most likely less physically demanding. If you were a combat arms soldier, it was likely more dangerous. This is the occupation you chose. It could be worse. Deal with it.

I applaud the sacrifices of all those who made them. Having seen the brutal hardship endured by many, I’m more than impressed. But guess what: we all did it to ourselves, and we were handsomely compensated for it. We elected to join, but this isn’t unpaid volunteer work, and as such you shouldn’t expect a discount or a free ride. You shouldn’t brow-beat civilians into giving you something. You shouldn’t accuse people of being weak or afraid for not making the same choices that you did.

So, in that regard, I think Stacy’s closing statement was right on. I also think we need to exhort all reasonable veterans to police up their own and make on-the-spot corrections. Otherwise, whatever strained expressions of goodwill still extant after a decade of whiners ruining it for everyone will soon wither and die. In some ways, we owe it to ourselves. Because some people did suffer, and some people are hurt, both physically and mentally, and some people did lose friends or family or their lives, and we should reserve the goodwill for them. We should reserve the discounts for them; it’s a testament to their true sacrifice. There were heroic acts by men deserving the appellation of and treatment befitting a hero. But we’re not all heroes, and the sooner we stop expecting to be treated like them, the sooner we’ll stop embarrassing ourselves.

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