NONCOMBAT GUILT

We’re standing on the shoulders of a line of warriors stretching back over 200 years. Sometimes it feels as if they stand on mine.

The burden is self-imposed. These selfless souls that sacrificed their physical and psychological well-being, or lives, in pursuit of freedom never demanded my guilt in return. They had their own reasons for serving. What may have pushed them was love of liberty and the principles that made this country great. What kept them going, and returning for more, was a commitment to their comrades-in-arms, a family united by shared values and intense, life-changing experiences that no outsider can truly understand.

The term “hero” is bandied about ad nauseam in the media. Someone battling a life-threatening illness is a hero. Passengers taking out terrorists on a doomed plane are heroes. In a society blessed by relative comfort and security the line between courage and heroism has become blurred. None of us chooses to take on illness (despite our frequent compulsion to abet it) and we serve ourselves by fighting it. Defending oneself against imminent death may entail bravery but is motivated by self-preservation. On the other hand, combat soldiers, peace officers, firefighters and the like choose to place themselves in harm’s way to help others. The financial rewards typically pale against the personal risk. This is no more evident than in the special case of the front line troops. In contrast, the greatest risk a hedge fund manager reaping millions faces is a Grand Jury indictment.

The dollars and adulation given to professional ballplayers, A-list actors, rock stars, scurrilous “reality” stars, and the likes of the Royal Family are obscene when measured against the yardstick of our warriors’ commitment and monetary reward. But fame, with or without talent, induces millions of fans to empty their pockets, so who am I as a free market capitalist to begrudge these hollow idols their legitimately earned gains?

I could rant on about the impropriety of our star-struck society, but the real point of this piece is personal. As a young college student, I was spared the draft for the unpopular Vietnam War by a high lottery number. At the time, engrossed in my studies, oblivious to ideas of duty and service and poorly educated in the issues surrounding international affairs at the time, I was, like most of my peers, relieved. Now, it makes the almost daily reports of the loss of another brave warrior that much more unbearable. My discomfort, a condition I call noncombat guilt, amounts to nothing; it’s but a raindrop to the hurricane of tragedy the physically or psychologically wounded soldier or devastated military family faces for the rest of their lives.

Everyone now lauds the service of our troops. It’s become politically correct (occasionally political and moral correctness do intersect) to thank even the spurned Vietnam War vet, probably the most unfairly treated troops in our nation’s history. Yet, it seems woefully inadequate. Partly, it’s because we can never truly repay them. But how much, if we deeply examine our souls, comes from our own inadequacies—the questioning of our personal strength of character, our mettle, to make the same sacrifice?

As time passes, the opportunity for placing oneself in harm’s way for others thankfully, and regretfully, passes, leaving us only with a handful of charities, an imperfect veterans’ safety net, and our gratitude.

As we celebrate the birth of our independence this July 4th, it helps to remember that holidays come and go, but for the families of those lost, every day is Memorial Day.

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