But in what coin do the military and ex-military actually want to be paid? Respect, of course. Recognition that yeah, we did step forward (though I knew plenty of really good people who were drafted--but they did their duty afterward.) Good care when they're wounded, But when we get commended for "defending the country"....let's think about the country we thought we were defending. What did "the home of the free and the brave" mean to us--not us in a lump, but us individually, when we joined up.
It's not the same country for all. I knew people who were "military brats" to start with, growing up through dozens of school systems, on dozens of bases, always a little apart from most of the civilian kids they knew. Don't make too tight a friendship, because we're due another transfer. I knew people who were fresh off the family farm in the grain belt (including, believe it or not, a tall, husky young man from Iowa whose last name was Corn. Nice fellow.) People from New York City. People from suburbs in Maryland. From California. From Nevada. Etc. So their idea of what kind of country they were defending had a large dollop of different in it, and it was in the military that we (including me, from the Texas/Mexican border downstream of Laredo) began to realize how diverse this country was...not from schoolbooks, or TV, but from rubbing up against the variety. Most of us mellowed out some from the contacts, learned to see the worth to the country of people from different backgrounds and very unlike ourselves. Some hardened into defensive shells. That's diversity too.
What I wish those who'd never served would agree they owed me is that old dream: equality. Respectful equality. Does not mean I claim to be more than you--or as smart/strong/nice as "anyone" (there are plenty of people smarter than me, stronger than me, nicer than me)--but that I am equal *as a citizen*...I have my vote, you have yours. Hear what I'm really saying. Don't have to agree...but really hear it, and understand why, for me, that's how it is. Tell me your story--I will listen and try to understand why, for you, that's how it is.
Another old dream: freedom, that can't exist without respect and the kind of equality I'm talking about. Your life is yours to live...in the old phrase, you can swing your arm as much as you like until it reaches my nose. My life is mine to live: win, lose, or draw, good decisions or stupid ones. I won't try to run your life; don't you try to run mine.
Respect. And here I find myself turning on the idea like a dog on a pillow. Does anyone owe me respect just because I served in the military? Well...yes, sort of. But they also owe respect to everyone else for the services they've done for the country--which includes things like showing up for work on the garbage truck, going down mines, picking tomatoes. Even being a female REMF in the '60s and early '70s had its dangers--the anti-war demonstrators in the D.C. area weren't any gentler to women in uniform than to men...but not compared to a coal miner in West Va., or a highway construction flagger on a busy road or the repair crew for the electric company trying to restore power in a storm. Teachers, firefighters, truck drivers, bus drivers, people up in a bucket working on phone lines or power lines (saw three yesterday), people patching potholes, mothers doing the grocery shopping with a toddler in tow and another one in the oven, nurses, doctors, people restocking grocery shelves...where would this country be without them?
What I think is owed to those who protect the country in uniform is for civilian citizens to be good citizens...because it's the civilian population that must hold the country together: feed it, clothe it, house it, transport it, make or grow or move the things everyone needs, keep its infrastructure intact. And the same virtues needed in a military person--honesty, courage, fairness, judgment, initiative, all the rest--are needed in every single citizen. Do what needs to be done as well as you possibly can. Help others when they need it. When you see someone fall, pick 'em up. LEAVE NO ONE BEHIND. Seriously. If one single Marine tradition could be grafted into the heart of every civilian, I'd probably pick that over some others: LEAVE NO ONE BEHIND.
The idea that it's OK to dismiss individuals or groups because they're not worth the sacrifice of bringing them along--Ron Paul's disgusting comments that some are makers and some are takers--that's a slap in my face, and in the face of every other person who goes out full of the desire to serve and protect the country. That idea unravels the country and its virtues behind our backs. Especially since we now know how badly vets have been, and may be, treated by those who don't agree with that vet's choices. The Marine Corps is and always will be my branch of service. Once a Marine, always a Marine is not just a saying. But the citizenry of this country are in my present unit. And I resent the hell out of it when someone wants to leave behind immigrants, or a racial group, or the old, or the gay, or the single moms, or the children of divorce, or the poor, or the disabled or any other currently unfashionable "unprofitable" groups or individuals. That's just wrong.
So: pay sideways. If someone respects me, or wants to show gratitude to me...be a better citizen. Respect those around you. Show gratitude to the country for what it's given you (without complaining that's too little or you're asked to pay something back in taxes.) Make choices that are good for the country--not just your precinct or your ethnic group or your faith community. Think bigger. Think deeper. Think farther ahead. Learn how to find the facts about things--learn to ignore the sound bites. As a former mayor here said, "Back your ears and lean into the collar--we got a job to do." Make the lives of everyone around you better--and by doing that, make the country better.
That's what you owe me. That's also what I owe you. That's also what I owe the men and women now in uniform and those who will be. We're in the same unit.