Non-Combat Veterans

Professor Taw at CMC teaches an amazing class called “War.” In the class, we read between one and four books a week that looked at war through the lenses of theory, memoirs, fiction, and historical analyses. Soldiers in the BIG wars – WW1 and WW2, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan – these were the people we looked at. Individuals who went to war, to fight, to the messy, harrowing, haunting hell that is combat. But one thing we never formally talked about were non-combat veterans. We talked about the shift in America to an all-volunteer force, which altered demographics and reduced general American emotional and physical involvement in the military (less than 1% of the U.S. population is active duty). We talked about the need to reorganize and attempts to repurpose our armed forces. But we didn’t spend much time on non-combat veterans.

We talked about the fact that the glorification of war may be held in striking contrast with the dirty reality that war actually is. We talked about the terror, the psychological trauma, and survivor’s guilt. We talked about those who didn’t make it home, and the refusal of many who did make it home to accept the title of hero. But we only briefly discussed what it means to be a non-combat veteran.

This idea is near and dear to my heart. My husband is an active duty sailor in the U.S. Navy. He was forward deployed for 13 months, sailing around Asia and the Middle East on a submarine supplier. He has never seen combat in his four years of service, but his commitment to the military means he could be reassigned into a conflict zone at any moment. In an age where the American public is increasingly distant from the military, many members of the armed forces are blindly thanked for their service by people with little understanding of what they’re doing. Many military personnel are cherished and held up by loved ones as heroes.

I understand that. I think it’s incredible that, for whatever  personal reason, these individuals sign up to serve their country in whatever capacity the military sees fit. But I also think labeling these men and women “heroes” out of hand places enormous pressure on them and even pushes them to want to go to war. Many soldiers, sailors, marines, etc., will never see combat. They will do maintenance, gather intelligence, and file paperwork. They will do incredibly important jobs that support our military’s ability to maintain its status as the strongest in the world. But by glorifying the soldier who has returned from war after defeating the enemy – very WW2 – we as a society might be encouraging our young men and women to want to deploy, to want to engage combatants, to want to go to war. It instills within our troops a message: if you do not serve in a combat capacity, you were missing out, you are not as much of a soldier, and you are less worthy of support and praise.

In an era where the military’s purpose and priorities are being reassessed, I think researchers need to focus on the perspectives of our service members – how they feel about their roles, the purpose of the military, and what it means to be perceived as a hero. Because while one of the prerequisites for joining the military is mentally preparing for the order to go to war, I’m not sure it should be a personal aspiration.