Veterans Day means many things for many people. Some of you have served, most of you know someone who has served, and some of us have lost those in service. This day is a weird one for me because Veterans Day is a reminder of betrayal.
A couple of years back, I read an excerpt of a Lucille Clifton poem that hit me like a punch to the gut:
hurts so much more
than Love rejecting;
they act like they don’t love their
what it is
is they found out
their country don’t love them.
I believe my country loves me as an idea: the idea of me as a United States Marine Corps veteran. I cried when I read this poem because it articulated something I felt but could not find the words for, myself.
When I joined the Marine Corps in 2001, I was joining for fun. 9/11 hadn’t happened yet. I was waiting to go to boot camp when it happened.
Like many hot-blooded Americans, I wanted vengeance. I and many other young men in America wanted a piece of the action, but things don’t happen that fast. I had to wait for training, and by the time I got out of boot camp things were beginning to cool down in Afghanistan and heat up in Iraq. When I got home for “boot leave,” I was “fully indoctrinated in love of Country and Corps.”
Boot camp was pretty effective.
I scored almost a perfect on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), so I had the freedom to do pretty much whatever I wanted. I chose to go infantry (0311 baby!) because I was joining for the experience, not career skills. I wanted to throw grenades and shoot rocket launchers. When I hit the School of Infantry (SOI) I had some options, and so I went straight infantry. When SOI ended, I got picked-up by a man who would prove to be one of the most influential Marines I ever met: 1st Sergeant Loya. I was the only one in my graduating class to be sent to 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion (1st LAR). 1st Sgt Loya (now Sergeant Major Loya ret.) bore the Naval Parachutist insignia and the Combatant Diver insignia. (All you need to know is those are code for “badass.”)
We had a quiet drive from SOI to my unit, gospel music playing quietly in the background.
That day was not a good one. Anyone who has been in the Marine Corps infantry knows your first day with your unit isn’t the welcome you would imagine. There was no cake waiting, no parades. My reception ranged from indifferent to hostile, as it should be.
I spent my remaining years with 1st LAR serving as a scout, one of the best things that ever happened to me. 1st Sgt Loya was just one of many good men I served with in the next few years. Most of the younger guys I served with were either new like myself, or just coming off a deployment to Afghanistan.
I won’t go into the details but you don’t necessarily need a war to make the connection I made with these guys. We served on the 13th and 15th Marine Expeditionary units and I traveled the world with these men. We bonded in a way many humans never get to. You can read Tom Clancy novels or watch Band of Brothers but those don’t encompass the hilarity, the boredom, the anger, the infighting, hatred and love we had for one another.
Less than 0.5% of the American population serves in the armed forces in America. Alaska Natives and Native Americans serve at disproportionate rates, mainly in the Navy and Marine Corps. I served in the Marines as my father, and my brother, did before me.
That less than half a percent number always disappoints me. It disappoints me because there are so few of us. I don’t want you reading this to feel bad if you haven’t served. No, not at all. It is not for everyone. It just makes the veneration for veterans in America both more understandable and more disingenuous at the same time.
For all the lip service and parades you would think more people would feel the call of duty. This day always feels like a betrayal as a veteran and a definite betrayal as an Alaska Native.
As a veteran when people thank me for my service I want to be snarky and answer “you’re welcome, I guess” because I don’t know why they are thanking me. I don’t want thanks; I want you to take care of my brothers and sisters. I want you to stop trotting them out whenever it’s politically convenient, and especially trotting them out on days like today.
I want you to keep your promise as we kept ours.
Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate the intent behind thanking me. But, I don’t need thanks. What I need is for you to be good Americans. Maybe wander your way into a voting booth once in a while. Or read a book. Challenge yourself. Take care of your fellow Americans. Know our history (even the ugly shit) and know thyself. Introduce yourself to your neighbor, and for fuck’s sake turn off cable news.
Not sending us to die in unnecessary wars would be nice too, especially considering how little of you have skin in the game.
This day mostly feels like a betrayal because of what that poem woke up in me. I fucking loved my country, I really did. I got home and started going to school. Learned a thing or two about history and how my people were treated. That part would be forgivable, but I also learned a thing or two about how we are still treated.
My country doesn’t love me. My country doesn’t love my people, and by extension my country doesn’t love me. Here at home, in the state my people have called home for as long as we have been, we are not loved.
That hurts, it really does.