If you’ve worn the uniform of our armed forces, you’ve put your life on the line for our country. This Memorial Day, we’ll remind ourselves that some men and women made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can live free in this great nation.
It’s not surprising, then, that many Americans are looking to veterans to help us out of these dark and divisive times. Political parties are recruiting veteran candidates as their “secret weapons” in the midterm elections, and advocates for causes ranging from gun rights to gun control to helping undocumented immigrants are elevating veteran voices to advance their agendas.
But is electing more veterans the solution to our nation’s problems? I wish that were all it took.
As a veteran myself, I appreciate that many Americans hold us in high esteem. But the rush to promote veteran candidates is evidence that we expect more out of our elected leaders than we do of ourselves. And that’s what really ails America.
While there are many veterans whose bravery, values and leadership are exemplary, we’re every bit as fallible as other Americans. A former Navy Seal turned governor of Missouri, Eric Greitens, fell short of our moral expectations when he admitted having an extramarital affair. In pleading guilty to lying to the F.B.I., Michael Flynn, a retired lieutenant general and President Trump’s first national security adviser, violated the very Army code of ethics he once pledged to live by.
We also can’t ignore the fact that veterans are leading some of the powerful special interest groups that have contributed to the toxic environment and unparalleled dysfunction in Washington. And veteran-led political groups, both Democratic and Republican, are playing roles in bitter political battles that feed our hyperpartisanship.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to dampen support for veteran leadership in our politics. But I do want to encourage everyone else to stop looking for quick fixes to our complicated problems and instead look to themselves for solutions. Until every citizen accepts responsibility for the political polarization that plagues our country, we can’t reasonably expect our representatives to work together, can we?
So let’s start by getting real. If all Americans actually revered veterans in elected office the way we tell ourselves we do, would we have accepted it when Donald Trump said in 2015 that Senator John McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam for five years, was “not a war hero”? Would we have also tolerated the nastiness directed at Senator McCain for taking a principled stand against torture even as he battles for his life against cancer?
And then let’s also be honest about what we can expect from the veterans we do elect. I personally look forward to seeing more veterans in Congress. There are now 96 veterans serving in the House and Senate, and reports indicate that more than 300 veterans are running for Congress this year. Some are definitely the kinds of leaders our country desperately needs. But they alone cannot heal a nation that is more divided than at any time since the Civil War.
It’s time for every American to sacrifice for the sake of the country, just like those who went to war. Not everyone will wear a military uniform or join AmeriCorps, but each of us can find ways to make the country a more perfect union.
Use your vote to demand strength of character, not just loyalty to ideology or party. Rather than complaining about divisiveness, start talking to people you disagree with. Learn to get along with those who are different from you, just as the Army expects from its soldier “battle buddies.” And be willing to sideline your own special interests for the sake of what’s in our entire country’s best interest.
Every day is Memorial Day for me, as it is for many combat veterans. I wear the name of a fellow platoon leader killed in action in Iraq on my wrist. My crew and I were often the lead gun truck on the same stretch of road from Taji to Camp Anaconda in Balad from which he never returned. It’s impossible to delete the memory of packing up his personal belongings to ship home to his young family not long after he died. I was then, and remain, humbled by what he and so many others sacrificed.
This Memorial Day, let’s pledge to honor the sacrifice of the fallen by no longer taking for granted how we maintain our rights, whether they be the right to protest or the right to bear arms. Let’s prove that our troops who never made it home from war didn’t die in vain. Let’s think about what each of us can do for our country, instead of hoping that a veteran will do it for us.