Pride, shame and stereotypes

Veterans Day brings up many contradictory emotions for me. At the forefront is pride: I am proud to have served my country alongside some of the best people I have ever met. I am proud to have followed in the footsteps of my parents—both of whom served 20-year careers in the U.S. Air Force—with a four-year enlistment in the Air Force of my own. I am proud of the things I accomplished during my service: the friends I made, the skills I developed, and the college courses I excelled in while on active duty that led to me receiving a Posse Foundation Veterans Program scholarship to study sociology at Vassar. It was a long, challenging, exhausting four years, but it was a rewarding and fulfilling experience. I can’t help but be proud of myself and my fellow veterans on the holiday made to celebrate us.

But at the same time, I feel a deep sense of shame over the actions carried out in our name and resulting from our labor. As a Security Forces Airman, I spent two six-month deployments in Qatar, where most of the U.S. operations in the Middle East are headquartered. There, one of our tasks was to secure the flightline from which hundreds, if not thousands, of bombing operations were carried out during my deployments. On Oct. 3, 2015, a U.S. Air Force AC-130U attacked a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz Province, Afghanistan, killing at least 42 people and injuring over 30 more. I was on post when the plane took off that day. I am deeply ashamed to have contributed even in the slightest to this war crime. I can’t speak for all veterans, but from my conversations with hundreds of them, I know that I’m not the only one who feels shame at the things our service in the military contributed to.

The contradiction between the pride I feel for my service and the shame I feel for what it contributed to is a confusing emotional conflict that continues to anger me. But this Veterans Day, I think it is important for us to distinguish between servicemembers and the military itself. I understand the anger directed at the U.S. military, and I share the same frustrations that most of us feel. However, I am troubled by the way some people treat veterans in their critiques of the military. While the old adage of “I was just doing my job” is not sufficient to justify our roles in American imperialism and its global criminal atrocities, it is unfair to stereotype veterans as joyful participants in these endeavours.

All of us joined the military for different reasons. Some of us joined because the public education system had failed us and we had nowhere else to go. Some of us joined to escape violent or otherwise unpleasant homes. Some of us joined to escape poverty and support our families. I joined so that I could afford to go to college without acquiring a crippling amount of student debt, and because I didn’t know what else to do with my life. We all have different reasons for joining, but we all have at least one thing in common: We were all exploited. Our recruiters preyed upon us and manipulated us; we were emotionally abused in basic training in order to forcibly conform to the military mindset (though many of us do not recognize this as abuse); we were worked well beyond the 40-hour work week and compensated significantly below the minimum wage; and our souls were burdened by the growing awareness of exactly what our labor was contributing to.

Ultimately, I hope my story will contribute to dispelling the unfair stereotypes that are placed on veterans. The stereotype of the brainwashed rightwing nationalist veteran, while true for a small (though significant) percentage of veterans, is not an accurate portrayal of the veteran community as a whole. I hope that our presence on campus has helped dispel this stereotype.

The veterans you may interact with on campus—all of us deeply thoughtful and intellectually qualified to be at Vassar—are not an exception to the norm. This country is full of veterans with the potential to do great things in this world, and all they need is a chance to prove themselves. Harmful stereotypes about veterans are nothing more than attempts to humiliate a vulnerable, exploited group of mostly decent people.

So on this Veterans Day, I ask that you take the time to reach out to the veterans and servicemembers in your life, such as us Posse students. or people you went to high school with, and connect with them on a personal level. You’ll quickly find out that we are more than just pawns in the game of American imperialism. We are deeply complex, just like everyone else, and when we separate from the military, we all deserve a second chance at life.

I am eternally grateful to the Posse Foundation and Vassar College for providing me with my second chance. Happy Veterans Day, everyone.

One Comment

  1. Thank you for this very thoughtful piece aimed at dispelling stereotypes of military people and veterans. We need to hear this, and more like it. Warm wishes for your great success at VC.

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