Supporting troops means more than watching a movie

This post originally appeared in the Feb. 7 edition of the Wise County Messenger. Photo found here.

“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
– George Orwell

There’s a scene in “American Sniper,” Clint Eastwood’s film about Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, where Kyle takes his young son with him to the auto shop to get his truck tuned up.

While in the waiting room, Kyle comes across another Iraq War veteran who recognizes him from a tour of duty. The veteran is an amputee who lost a leg. He calls Kyle a “legend” and tells him he would have lost both legs if Kyle hadn’t been there “watching over him.”

The vet then crouches down to talk to Kyle’s son, saying, “You may not know it, but your dad’s a hero.”

Kyle, clearly uncomfortable with the attention, quickly pays the mechanic and leaves with his son. No words are spoken about the exchange, but you can clearly see that Kyle is uneasy with his fame.

This week, Gov. Greg Abbott declared Feb. 2 to be “Chris Kyle Day” in Texas.

Kyle was killed on a North Texas gun range last year on that date. His killer’s trial will begin in Stephenville next week.

“We will commemorate his passing,” Abbott said in a speech at the Texas Veterans of Foreign Affairs meeting. “But more importantly, [we will remember] his answering of the call of duty.”

Abbott also outlined his plans for Texas veterans in his speech, saying he plans to improve healthcare and job creation for veterans.

According to the latest data from the VA, there are more than 950,000 veterans living in Texas. Almost 10 percent of the 18 and older population are veterans.

“As governor, I will constantly work to find ways like these to help our veterans,” Abbott said. “It’s our duty to help those who helped make America so exceptional. And it’s our duty to honor those whose sacrifice has preserved our freedom.”

I’ve always had a murky relationship with the phrase “Support Our Troops.” As a military brat, I heard the phrase a lot. I heard it a lot more after 2003, when the unit my dad was attached to deployed to Afghanistan.

But the platitude always seemed to ring a bit false to me, like when guests at a funeral tell the bereaved “If you need anything, I’ll be here.” Best of intentions, but it’s said so many times it feels scripted. What else are you supposed to say?

Or, as James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic last month, “This reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military – we love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them – has become so familiar that we assume it is the American norm. But it is not …

“Through the decade after World War II, when so many American families had at least one member in uniform, political and journalistic references were admiring but not awestruck. Most Americans were familiar enough with the military to respect it while being sharply aware of its shortcomings, as they were with the school system, their religion, and other important and fallible institutions.

“Now the American military is exotic territory to most of the American public.”

I think the reason that we hero-worship veterans is because we do not want to be them. We hold them in high regard and at arm’s length because we do not want to think about what happens “over there” – yet we continue to put them above reproach, as if merely wearing a uniform protects them from any skepticism.

Yes, Abbott’s declaration of Chris Kyle Day was done on the anniversary of Kyle’s death, but it will also certainly help “American Sniper’s” Oscar chances and Abbott’s approval ratings. It’s easy to support this film and simultaneously squirm at a film like “Selma” because “American Sniper” is happening “over there,” while “Selma” is still happening in our backyard 50 years later.

We have been involved, since 2003, in the longest war in our nation’s history, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at our citizens. Civilians live in a detached sense of superiority because of our elite military, yet we refuse to engage with them when they return from war. This is the biggest point “American Sniper” conveys.

The war scenes aren’t ambiguous because Kyle’s view of the war wasn’t ambiguous – this is a man who said in his memoir that “after you kill your enemy, you see it’s okay [to kill].”

Kyle said he never fought for the democracy America was trying to instill, but for his countrymen: “I could give a flying f— about the Iraqis.”

I say all this as the son of a career Army officer and the brother of an Army ROTC cadet. I’m extremely pro-soldier. But it worries me when Americans turn out in droves for a film that could easily be interpreted to glorify killing. There is no asterisk next to the Sixth Commandment in the Bible, yet war, God and country go hand-in-hand in America.

Kyle also said, “What wounded veterans don’t need is sympathy. They need to be treated like the men they are: equals, heroes and people who still have tremendous value for society.”

The truth is, many Americans would rather “support the troops” by watching war on the big screen than help the homeless soldier down the street. We would rather stand up and cheer in the theater watching Kyle shoot a rival sniper, than stand up to the way the VA handles healthcare. We would rather argue with someone over whether or not Chris Kyle is a hero than give a veteran a job.

We say “Thank you for your service” – but not really for what they did, more for what we didn’t have to do because of them.

I hope Gov. Abbott follows through on his plans to help veterans get the healthcare they deserve and the jobs they need, and that declaring Feb. 2 “Chris Kyle Day” wasn’t just a political move for him.

Helping the veterans who come home is the real way to support the troops.

Jake Harris is a reporter for the Messenger.

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