A few weeks ago, this weekly blog would have started with an introduction about who I am and why I think you should read my posts, but Murphy as we all know always has other plans and today, I find myself joining the cacophony of those writing about COVID-19.
Last week I received an e-mail from U.S. Army Human Resources Command asking me if I was willing to return to duty to help the nation in the response to COVID-19. I replied to the e-mail within seconds as I’m sure thousands of other military retirees did, each of them raising their hands albeit but virtually. Send me. I doubt I will get the call since I’m not a person with a critical skill set, but just in case I have a razor handy and I’m hitting the treadmill.
In the immediate aftermath of 9-11, first responders became the reluctant heroes of that catastrophe. These days, COVID-19 has placed a cape on the backs of medical professionals, delivery drivers, warehouse workers, grocery store employees and others. Bravery comes unexpectedly and suddenly and we are never fully prepared for what it is that we will do when fate comes to reckon. But like the brave men and women on United Airlines Flight 93, around the nation Americans like those aboard that flight are making life and death decisions and confronting this invisible threat which has already claimed the lives of thousands of people.
In response to COVID-19, many everyday Americans are experiencing for the first time in their lives, what members of the armed forces face routinely—death, high-stress environments, uncertainty, isolation, danger, self-sacrifice, and a lack of resources. The difference is that those of us who served, and those who are still serving, signed up for all of the drama that comes with military service. We embrace the suck, as we like to say, mostly because we asked for it and it is a source of twisted pride amongst those in the military. Draftees too embraced it and made the best of things.
In the military, we compete with each other over which branch has it worse. Then within the services, we get even more granular in our arguments, certain military occupations have it worse than others and the harder the duty, the more respect that is garnered or expected. Even within a career field, there is hierarchical jockeying. A few months ago, my son’s youth group visited an Army aviation unit and there was friendly competition about who flew the better or more important helicopter.
In recent weeks I’ve seen the response to COVID-19 compared to war and right on cue the outrage from veterans began. Just today I heard a news anchor say that medical professionals are charging bravely up a hill in a fight against COVID-19. For a 24-year veteran like me, I reflexively think of the U.S. Army’s May 1969 fight on Hamburger Hill in Vietnam and I admit, an internal war starts as I struggle to liberate my mind of cynical thoughts.
The president has joined the fray and he has referred to himself as a wartime president. I’ve found myself comparing him to FDR, but it is an apples to oranges comparison. People being interviewed on television are saying things like “It looked like a war zone” when they describe any COVID-19 landscape and I wonder to myself if their assessment is based on experience. Suddenly every reporter is a war correspondent using words like combat, fight, war, battle, and other terms that evoke strong emotions from veterans. But vets, we need to control our emotional response to the current climate. We need to avoid the “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt,” know-it-all mentality that is often affixed to us when it comes to a crisis. That’s what the word “veteran” actually means, “A person who has long experience in a particular field.”
As veterans, we should not be using our military experiences to make others uncomfortable by marginalizing their fears and minimizing contributions. I’ve seen it going on in social media circles and I’ve discussed this with military buddies. We should not be elevating our stature during this crisis as though we are greater than what is happening, as if we are the wise person atop the mountain having attained some type of wisdom only military people can acquire. Veterans, we are not more enlightened or anointed by some experiential being simply because we have worn a uniform or gone off to war.
Instead of looking critically at what our friends, family and neighbors are saying and doing, we should be the steady voice of reason and calm. We should not be divisive. The same way that we came together in the ranks, regardless of race, religion, gender, to achieve objectives and complete a mission, we should help combat this invisible enemy. The nation has a different mission for us.
When others are panicking, help ease their fear by sharing statistics from the CDC, not data you picked up from some meme. When you see someone spreading misinformation online, reassure and re-center them with factual information. Nobody wants to hear a “No shit, there I was …” story. It has no relevance to a parent who is happy that the grocery store is open so they can feed their kids. Similarly, your war stories about how you ate dirt for six months in a foxhole do not matter to the software engineer whose company might collapse. For most Americans, the COVID-19 outbreak is the epic crisis of their lives. This a war they never signed up to fight and like some of us have done, they are making it up as they go along. Let's help them.
I admit, regrettably, that initially I cringed when I heard the word “hero” being used to describe grocery clerks and stocking personnel because I associated that term with names like Desmond Doss and Rafael Peralta, men who placed their lives on the line for their fellow brothers in arms. My views have since evolved.
Can medical professionals, grocery store employees, delivery drivers and others who are keeping our economy and people alive die just by going to work? Emphatically, yes. A person is no less a hero because they died from a virus trying to care for the sick and not from a sniper’s bullet in war. A person is not less brave because they go to a domestic job and risk exposing themselves to a virus that can kill them as opposed to driving in a convoy in a war zone.
Veterans, let’s be the people that our nation needs us to be. Muster the patience to refrain from judgment. Avoid acting as if you know how this will all end because the truth is you do not. Be a good battle buddy and wing man and let your friends, family and neighbors know that you’re all in this fight together and that you are in their corner with sponge and bucket. Help people prepare for the worst, but keep the morale high in your circles. Discuss what you can do for those close to you if something happens to them. Ensure they know you will take care of their family. Ensure there is a plan for your family as well. The military is a team of teams. Our communities are no different. They need you.
Veterans have a legacy of resiliency, a standard of grit that is passed down, generation to generation, started long ago by a ragtag group of idealistic rebels with muskets. Let’s live up to that legacy.
Like that ragtag group, the battlefield is our backyard. Let’s step up and show people not that we know it all and not that their fears are unfounded, instead let’s show them through leadership and support, and not criticism, what it means to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. And let’s ensure we’re being real too and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. You might be veterans or still serving, but you don’t have all the answers because none of you, zero, has ever been through something like this before. None of you have fought a worldwide pandemic of this magnitude.
Right now, my sixth-grade son is wailing on his clarinet. He is playing America the Beautiful and it is off key and other times pitch perfect. How apropos. As the sun fades through my window, the music screeching in the background, I’m thankful, as I was in Iraq, that I get to see the sun go down another day and tomorrow when I wake up I will think that all I have to do is get through another day. Another day and I’m closer to home.
And I can’t help but think about the letter Rafael Peralta wrote to his brother the night before he died in Fallujah. “Be proud of me, bro … and be proud of being an American.”
Let’s embrace the suck, people. Let’s do this.
Hold my beer.