Better to die ten thousand deaths than wound my honor
- British poet James Addison
At the Sunday morning service before Memorial Day there was a brief ceremony honoring veterans for their service. Our music team led the congregation in singing “God Bless America” and the American flag was presented. Our pastor then asked all veterans to stand to be recognized. It was a kind gesture, but I felt a bit awkward about it. Nancy saw this and prodded me to stand.
Why the awkwardness? First, because I believe the altar is solely God’s domain. I’m a loyal citizen and always will be, but I believe there are obligations that are even higher than those conferred on me by citizenship. My faith obliges me to be a good citizen, but there are times when my faith requires me to listen to a Higher Voice.
That doesn’t put me at odds with my country. I’m very fortunate to live in a country where my rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are deemed to be God-given, unalienable rights. I’m glad our Founders had the wisdom to enshrine our most important rights, particularly our right to freely “exercise” our respective religious faiths. It took considerable wisdom and courage for them to do so. Allowing a nation’s citizens to practice their beliefs freely can sometimes be dangerous to entrenched political interests. That freedom gives us all the right to say, “No! That’s powerful stuff.
I was awkward for a second reason. I served in the U.S. Air Force for 8 ½ years. I did my duty. I served “honorably.” I went where I was told to go. I did overseas tours of duty in Panama, Newfoundland¸ and Vietnam. I obeyed the orders of my superiors to the best of my ability. But, I bear no lasting scars of war. I never won a Purple Heart. I simply did my duty, that’s all. I left the Air Force in 1969. I didn’t expect a lot in return. I went to college and graduate school, thanks to G.I. Bill education benefits I’d earned for my service. I bought my first home with a V.A. loan, another earned benefit for my service. Until a few years ago I’d never claimed any medical benefits for my service. Now, I get an annual physical, flu shots, and low cost medications. I’m also entitled to a limited number of medical procedures.
I don’t get to the Topeka V.A. center often, but when I do I always make it a point to wander around and see how my fellow veterans are doing. I’d like to be the bearer of better news, but that wouldn’t be true. Many of them bear the physical scars of their service. There’s an over-abundance of artificial limbs. Some walk with canes; some sit in wheelchairs. Some tremble uncontrollably. Many of them shuffle from place to place with faraway, haunted looks in their eyes. I suspect it’s because the memories of the past are so painful they refuse to go away even after forty, fifty years, or seventy years.
I get the chance to occasionally talk with them. They sometimes complain (it’s the G.I.’s privilege), but I’ve never heard one ever say he wouldn’t serve again. They never ask for much. They just want to be treated with dignity and respect.
You’d think that would be easy for a grateful nation to do. But, tragically, it’s not. We’ve all read the horror stories of secret waiting lists, bonuses for bureaucrats, and veterans dying because they couldn’t get an appointment to see a doctor.
The more I think about it, the more my blood boils. I’m angry. I’m not angry for myself. I’m doing fine. I’m angry for my fellow veterans. I’m angry with the entire chain of command, including our Commander in Chief.
The injury inflicted on our veterans has been bad enough, but events of the past week have added insult to that injury. Like most veterans, I’m glad that Bowe Bergdahl has been repatriated. Perhaps now he’ll come home and start to learn the true meaning of honorable service.
But, Bowe Bergdahl is only the tip of the iceberg. When an administration becomes so cynical that it conducts a Rose Garden news conference with Bergdahl’s family and then parades Susan Rice before the media with the proclamation that Bergdahl has served with “honor and distinction,” it’s a slap in the face of every veteran waiting in a long, long line for treatment. It’s a slap in the face to all those who currently serve and for those who searched for Bergdahl. It’s a slap in the face to those who died looking for him. It’s an insult to their families.