“It is sweet and right to die for one’s country,” wrote the Roman poet Horace in his ‘Odes.’ The Roman army still influences our world today; its conquests built an empire. But it could not stop Rome from rotting from within.
Monday was Memorial Day in the U.S. While we can hope to spend some time in quiet reflection of the people who gave their lives for our country, it mostly serves as the start of the summer season. There are many tributes to America’s fallen on my social media feeds, but the posts that feature barbecues and sunbathing are more abundant.
The American public is tragically disconnected from our own military. I count myself among the guilty. I know several veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I wrote and sent them things while they were away. But had you asked me where exactly they were and when, I couldn’t tell you.
As the public flag-waving gets more fervent, the actual involvement with our military becomes more detached. We have had an all-volunteer military for several decades now. Not since the Vietnam War have Americans been called up in a draft. When I turned 18 I had to register for the Selective Service and I still have my card someplace. While still the law, draft numbers are lower; we don’t have reminders to register. The military is simply not a reality for wide swaths of our population.
It is easy to wave a flag and heap praise on people who are gone. It’s a lot tougher to turn that sentiment into real action that helps the living. As a country, we’re falling short on both grounds.
My brother knows people who live six hours driving time away from the Veterans Affairs hospital where he goes regularly. Some take hours-long bus trips to the VA only to find that their medical appointments were canceled without notification. Veterans have been known to commit suicide in the parking lots of VA hospitals; this phenomenon doesn’t surprise my brother one bit. He’s been negotiating the bureaucracy of the Veteran’s Administration for the better part of the last 20 years, with an increased intensity over the last 10. He was recently ordered to have an unnecessary EKG done so he could get a refill of medicine he needs. He knows his prescription regimen better than the rotating doctors and orderlies assigned to help him; and every so often he has to essentially retrain the people who should know how to help him.
We’ve trained soldiers who can survive poison gas and terrorist bombs but not our own healthcare system. This would be inexcusable in a second-world country, let alone the richest country in the world. And the VA didn’t suddenly collapse; it’s been infamously bad for generations now.
Our commitment to our country and our fallen veterans has got to spread far beyond the traditional ceremony and observances if our patriotism is to have lasting meaning. Let’s start today.