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My Answer to 'Thank You For Your Service'

On Memorial Day, we shouldn't just honor our fallen brethren with a moment of silence. We should also question why they died.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney addressed troops at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington in April 2006. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Staff Sergeant Laura K. Smith)

This Memorial Day, veterans across the country are steeling themselves. How to deal with the inevitable onslaught of “thank you for your service” comments? For years I simply gave a nod and kept my mouth shut.

This wasn’t always easy. As a white, heterosexual, married man from Texas, I perfectly fit the American Soldier mold. Before people even know me, they comfortably launch into how cool it is that I get to shoot big guns at bad people, how badass we soldiers are, and how difficult it must be for us to see the terrible things done to good people by bad people (the distinction between these groups is never dwelt upon).

"America trains it’s soldiers to be hyper-masculine animals ready to kill, then elevates them to the status of living angels."But on Memorial Day, we shouldn’t just honor our fallen brethren with a moment of silence. We should also question why they died. And no one is better positioned to lead this effort, I’ve come to realize, than veterans themselves.

If you say out loud what modern warfare is and what modern American soldiers do, it tends to silence a room. No one wants to hear that, essentially, we’re sending young people to faraway countries to kill other people that might, potentially, maybe, pose a threat to us.

But it’s necessary to say it anyway.

America trains it’s soldiers to be hyper-masculine animals ready to kill, then elevates them to the status of living angels. The Department of Defense has developed video games and worked directly with the video game industry, leading many to think joining the military will make them a supercommando with the opportunity to save the planet and find a woman with whom to settle down. I’ve heard young recruits talk about their jobs in those terms.

But this attitude engenders misogyny, transphobia, racism, and vigilantism. Toxic masculinity and white nationalism are thriving in the armed forces because of military culture, not despite it.

I joined the military because I thought it would be a way for me to test my mettle and effectuate real change in the world. I opposed the war in Iraq and the continuing war in Afghanistan, but I didn’t think the military was fundamentally wrong. I reconciled my liberal apprehensions by convincing myself that I could be a voice of reason amongst people who might not know any better. But I was ignorant, and the belief that the U.S. military can evoke positive material change in the world was difficult to hold on to when my boots were on the ground. The idea of service that is presented to us is noble, but the reality is not.

Hawkish politicians cleverly link disapproval of warmongering with hatred of soldiers, leaning on American guilt over the mistreatment of veterans after Vietnam. Teary-eyed reunions staged at public events, Hollywood propaganda, and cloying country ballads all help cement the “veteran(TM)” as the paragon of American values. This has made criticism of U.S. military aggression a difficult proposition, and criticism of military culture itself completely off-limits.

We have become so enamored of the idea of martial heroism that we engineer wars to keep hope in the American dream alive.

Veterans face an uphill battle fighting the curated stereotype of post-September 11 freedom warrior. Because of their de facto protected status, veterans have been used extensively since September 11 to shield politicians from criticism through invocation of their hero status. But when politicians invite veterans to a discussion, it is more often to invoke their courage and bravery, rather than to hear their concerns. Among the veteran community, such tokenism is sometimes referred to as "Pet A Vet.”

"Toxic masculinity and white nationalism are thriving in the armed forces because of military culture, not despite it."

Despite the exploitation of the military image, veterans have a unique edge over other groups in the fight for progressive change. The bonds formed in the military are extremely close, and often transcend race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and class. After leaving the military, most veterans are left with a large network of fellow soldiers from many backgrounds. Cultural deference to veterans and the coupling of their identity with the American heartland means that they can freely communicate progressive issues to conservatives who wouldn’t take the time to hear anyone else out.

Veterans on the left are increasingly using these advantages to make their voices heard on social justice, climate change, economic inequality, and especially war.

Progressive veterans like Kentucky Democratic Congressional candidate Amy McGrath are running for office and winning in areas where liberals spent decades getting crushed by conservatives. In Texas, Gina Ortiz-Jones is steaming along toward becoming the first openly lesbian, Filipina-American, and veteran to win the 23rd congressional district.

Colleen Boland, a master sergeant and twenty-year veteran of the Army and the Air Force, organizes for Vets Against Climate Change and was actively involved in the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock and efforts to ban fracking in New York State. Corporate public relations campaigns are rendered useless when police handcuff and drag away a small woman with a quilt of war medals pinned to her chest.

It’s in this way that progressive veterans have the power to demolish stereotypes and reset the conversation.

Leaders like Pam Campos-Palma, executive director of Common Defense, are showing the U.S. public that veterans are not just white men, and will fight to defend the most vulnerable in our society from bigotry and oppression. Fighting the lingering effects of discriminatory policies such as “don’t ask, don't tell,” activists Nicole Vanderheiden of Transforming Families and Lindsay Church of Minority Veterans of America are helping lead the charge for recognition of LGBT veterans, amplifying voices that have been silenced for decades.

So, here’s what I want to share this Memorial Day.

Left-leaning veterans, you are not alone. There are more of us than you think and we need your help. Join with these organizations and others and you will quickly learn how powerful your voice is. Now is the time to step up.

And for non-service members, remember that we are here, we are your allies, and have long been prepared to make sacrifices to better our country.

This weekend, know that many Americans have died fighting for a free and noble society that does not yet exist. But if we do the work, it could.

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Zach Henson

Zach Henson is a U.S. Army veteran living in Brooklyn, New York.

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