By Andy Cohen | Congressional Watch
Too often the articles we read — in general, but about politics specifically — can be considered entirely negative in nature. In this column I have often highlighted the negative actions/positions/ statements of San Diego’s members of Congress — usually our Republican members of Congress, but occasionally our Democratic members as well. And while I try to find more positive events to discuss, the unfavorable tends to be far more common.
Happily, this month is different.
On June 24, U.S. Rep. Susan A. Davis (D-53) hosted a Veterans Town Hall at the Ronald Reagan Community Center in El Cajon. This was not your typical town-hall format, where constituents are offered the opportunity to directly hear from and ask questions of their member of Congress. This event was entirely geared toward active and former members of San Diego’s extensive military community.
What also made this event different was that rather than Davis, the veterans were the center of attention. It was billed as “a chance to hear, firsthand, from someone who has served in a combat role,” and an “opportunity to hear how that has affected them and how they relate to their family, friends, and community differently in some cases after those experiences,” according to press releases announcing the event.
Serving in a combat arena changes a person, sometimes for the worse; but, as some of the stories indicated, often for the better. However, it not only affects those who serve, it also impacts the families and friends who are left behind during deployments. And as one vet pointed out, the more recent conflicts are vastly different than the nation’s efforts during World War II: Back then, everyone had “skin in the game,” as a large section of the national economy was dedicated to supporting the war effort.
Today, with an all-volunteer military and only 1 percent of the population serving, it is easy for the average American to go about their daily lives without giving much thought to those serving in combat zones. This was an opportunity for the public to hear some of their stories.
Several discussed the horrors of war and the difficulties of transitioning back home; how a soldier in a combat zone is expected to kill the enemy, whereas once they return home they are expected flip a switch and not kill, and the kind of toll the adjustment to “normal society” can take psychologically.
But there is also some beauty in war, as one speaker noted. He told of the unconditional love that members of a unit have for one another, being “willing to lay down your life for the man on the right and on the left of you, often someone you may not know very well.”
One active servicemember told a story of a mission in Afghanistan. As his convoy passed by a village, they encountered a boy who decided to attack his truck with a rock. This servicemember, a former minor-league baseball player who asked not to be identified, watched as the boy wound up and fired the rock right into a heavily fortified windshield, cracking it. Impressed with the boy’s form and arm strength, he decided to do something about it.
Upon returning to base, he gathered up all the baseball equipment he could find, including a bucket of balls he happened to have. The unit members climbed back into their trucks and returned to the village. Approaching at high speed, the convoy turned suddenly off the road and screeched loudly to a halt, terrifying some of the villagers. Village elders approached the soldiers, furious at the seemingly violent disruption.
As the men climbed out of their vehicles carrying the baseball equipment with them, they calmed the villagers down, saying that they only wanted to get their attention. As soon as the men set the gear on the ground to speak to the elders, it disappeared into the hands of the growing crowd of boys who had rushed out to see what was going on. The next thing you know, baseballs were flying through the air, gloves adorning heads, laughter surrounding them.
Then there was the story of Air Force 2nd Lt. Christina Prejean, who served for a year as a security escort for visiting NATO VIPs in Afghanistan. She had a command role for a unit of 50 servicemembers, but was one of only two women in the unit. Prejean noted the importance of her just being there, carrying out her duties and giving orders, especially to men. Her mere presence, she said, provided an example and gave hope to local Afghan women for whom female authority figures are non-existent. Her presence, she said, made a difference for those women.
And while women in the military have made enormous advances, with increased stature and authority throughout the ranks, the reality is that the military is still not a completely safe place for women. While she felt she had the respect of those around her, she said that while in that country, she was afraid to get up and go to the bathroom at night for fear of being raped by a fellow servicemember. Military sexual assault victims, she said, are not getting the care and attention they need.
We’ve come a long way from the days when Vietnam veterans returned home to jeers and derision for their role in that protracted conflict. Today, our military are welcomed home with gratitude for their service and sacrifice, despite what the populace thinks of their mission. Today people are able to separate the individual service man or woman from the orders they are directed to carry out.
But the burdens of war today are carried by so few, it can be a very lonely and isolating experience upon return home. Events like these, Rep. Davis said, allow these men and women to share their experiences with the entire community so that they do not have to bear those burdens alone.
—Andy Cohen is a local freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.