Sergeant Dakota Meyer was propelled into the halls of Marine Corps celebrity and lore on September 15, 2011 when he was presented the Medal of Honor by President Barrack Obama during a ceremony at the White House. Meyer, who served as a scout sniper embedded with a team training the Afghanistan National Army, was given this prestigious and storied award for his involvement in the Battle of Ganjgal in which he and his comrades continually braved heavy fire from a numerically superior enemy force during a six hour firefight in order to save the lives of their fellow Marine, US Army, and ANA counterparts. In his citation, it states that Meyer “single-handedly turned the tide of the battle, saved 36 Marines and soldiers and recovered the bodies of his fallen brothers.”
Meyer became the third living recipient of this honor during the Global War on Terrorism, and the first living Marine recipient since the conflict in Vietnam ended. Like the two previous GWOT recipients, Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta and Sergeant First Class Leroy Petry, Sergeant Meyer was thrust into the national limelight, gave interviews on the Tonight Show with David Letterman and 60 Minutes, and embarked on a much publicized national goodwill tour.
These three men now—whether they like it or not—hold the unique position of being spokesmen for a generation of veterans who have consisted of approximately .45% of the American population. Plagued early on by the government’s disgraceful handlings of the Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman cases, those who served in the Armed Forces Post-9/11 now look to these warriors as a positive beacon of our legacy and contribution to American history. Their personal actions in the horrific fields of fire will undoubtedly be written above many sacrifices made in the ten years our country (or that small percent of servicemembers) has shed blood in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as Meyer’s heroics in uniform are recounted in numerous forms of media, he is beginning to find out the larger obstacles of what being an American veteran entails—something that has become highly publicized because of his unintentional celebrity status.
On November 29, 2011, The Wall Street Journal reported that Dakota Meyer filed a defamation lawsuit against his former employer, BAE Systems, after the company made statements that prevented him from being hired at another defense company. Meyer alleges that after sending an e-mail to his BAE supervisor, Bobby McCreight, in which he voiced his objections to the company’s selling of advanced thermal optics scopes to the unscrupulous nation of Pakistan, McCreight began “berating and belittling” him. Meyer states that he left BAE because of their sales to Pakistan, and after attempting to get rehired at his previous job with Ausgar Technologies, McCreight prevented this by telling Ausgar employees Meyer was “mentally unstable” and “had a problem related to drinking in a social setting.”
BAE Systems spokesman Brian Roehrkasse told The Associated Press that the company was grateful to Meyer for his bravery but strongly disagreed with his claims. He called Meyer’s actions in Afghanistan “heroic” and wished him success. Roehrkasse later went on to say that McCreight, the man that has been accused of belittling Meyer and preventing him from future employment, is a “former decorated Marine sniper.”
Now, I personally find the alleged events that transpired between Mr. Meyer and BAE Systems quite unsettling, but I’ve become completely outraged upon reading BAE’s response to the allegations. For one, I’m trying to wrap my head around BAE claiming Meyer is a poor employee considering he [Meyer] openly stated that when President Obama personally called him to inform him of his Medal of Honor approval, he told the Commander-in-Chief and leader of the free world that he was at work and had to call him back during his lunch break—this hardly sounds like the actions of someone with a substandard work ethic. Furthermore, the fact that they [BAE] have taken the route of touting McCreight as a “decorated Marine sniper” is not only cheap, but it’s downright deceiving.
The concept of being “decorated” is all a matter of perception, one that vastly contrasts itself depending on who you’re talking to. If you happen to be talking to your average citizen, someone with no military background and little understanding of military awards, they would probably look at the number of awards I had accumulated during my four years of active-duty service and assume I was highly decorated. This simply isn’t the case. While I received a decent number of awards, none of them were for actions that stood out in the performance of my job in combat; rather they would represent the same types and number of decorations that your average Marine of my MOS (military occupational specialty) and deployment timeline would have gotten during his years of service. If you were talking to me or any other combat veteran, we would classify “decorated” as someone who has received, let’s say, a Silver Star, Navy Cross, or like Giunta, Petry, and Meyer, a Medal of Honor. These medals are rarities, only given to those who vastly stood out from their peers in times of strife, regardless of MOS or combat deployment history.
But the public has no concept of this. So when BAE claimed the man who had allegedly thwarted a Medal of Honor recipient’s chances at employment was a decorated sniper, they were essentially tossing a misnomer to the unknowing public by stating—intentionally or unintentionally—that Meyer and McCreight were on the same playing field of military heroism. This is not only untrue, but I find it highly offensive that BAE would even go there.
This highly publicized incident perhaps represents a larger problem going on with the American veteran: the growing disconnect between the majority of the American workforce and our tiny role in it.
Since the early days of the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public has been bombarded with articles and reports regarding American war veterans and their battles with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. The number of veterans suffering from PTSD is indeed alarming, but I fear the general public has conjured an ignorant and uninformed idea of what PTSD is and who veterans with PTSD are. The overwhelming amount of coverage on the subject would leave—does leave—people to think we’re an entire generation of bitter victims who are unable to cope with life.
Speaking purely on behalf of myself, I found some of the hardest adjustments for me coming back to civilian life were not anything I was involved with during my years on active-duty service, it was coming to the realization that the general public (my peers, professors, and potential employers) had contrived an image of me as soon as they heard or saw that I was a veteran of Iraq. I felt isolated because no matter how badly I wanted to hold my head high when the subject was broached, the only responses I seemed to be getting from people were those of pity. I was a victim to them. The polarizing nature of the war in Iraq and the constant reports of skyrocketing homeless and PTSD rates among veterans gave them an initial impression that I was mentally broken—being that I left the service at twenty-two and in good spirits, I was anything but.
Coming from the combat arms community of the military, I’ve held friendships with men who have seen some of the worst and greatest qualities in the human species. These individuals are veterans of multiple combat deployments, some of which were the most highly publicized battle during the Global War on Terrorism. A certain number of them have had and currently battle with PTSD. But they’re not who you think they are. They’re not criminals prone to abhorrent violence, nor are they victims unable to cope. Yes, for some, depression has at times taken its toll, but I’m also witnessing them make life changing transitions into healthy careers, marriage, parenthood, and happiness. They’re bringing tools into their lives that they could have never gained without the struggles of combat, and they’re channeling it into success.
I know firefighters, cops, and US Border Patrol agents. They’re medical professionals and stay at home dads. There’s a PhD candidate at an Ivy League school. Many are businessmen and entrepreneurs. Some have stayed in the military and climb the ranks on the enlisted side, while others have taken commissions in different branches and now serve as officers. There are a couple of pilots. I just had lunch with a friend last week, a lawyer who is currently working on his jurist doctorate at a prestigious law school. We have cowboys and farmers, laborers and artists, military contractors and social workers. None of them have complained about the life they chose in their youth. They walked off the parade deck and into the American dream. I have faith in this country because of people like them.
I have no choice but to believe Dakota Meyer when he claims that he was none of the things that BAE said he was. The actions of BAE represent this disturbing trend in companies that tote their veteran friendly employment history, yet turn around and play off the public’s misguided view of what being a war veteran is.
Greg Jaffe dove into the subject of America’s strained relationship with her veterans in a November 14, 2011 article in the Washington Post titled “Troops feel more pity than respect”:
The event was a Wall Street gala that raised millions of dollars for homeless veterans in New York City.
Kid Rock sang a ballad about helplessness, frustration and loss. On cue, several hundred soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines strode into position around him. The black-tie crowd rose to its feet and cheered.
“The servicemen and women were regarded as heroes,” said David Saltzman, who organized the spring fundraiser.
A senior military officer at the gala, also attended by the Joint Chiefs then-chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, saw the troops’ role differently.
“They were rolled out like some sort of orphan kid,” the officer wrote in an e-mail. “I’m sure the organizers meant well. I know they did. But it wasn’t respect, really. It was pity.”
The starkly conflicting impressions illustrate the uneasy relationship that has taken hold between the military and an often distant, sometimes adoring American public.
The troops are lavished with praise for their sacrifices. But the praise comes with a price, service members say. The public increasingly acts as if it feels sorry for those in uniform.
“We aren’t victims at all,” said Brig. Gen. Sean B. MacFarland, who commanded troops in Iraq and will soon leave for Afghanistan. “But it seems that the only way that some can be supportive is to cast us in the role of hapless souls.”
The topic is a sensitive one for military leaders, who do not want to appear ungrateful or at odds with the public they serve. They also realize that the anger that returning troops faced in the latter years of the Vietnam War was far worse.
As a result, most of the conversations about pity take place quietly and privately among combat veterans. After his two sons returned from combat tours with the Marines, retired Col. Mark Cancian warned them that people outside the military would view their service from two perspectives.
Some would look at them with a sense of awe because they faced down insurgents and traveled to exotic places. Others would wonder whether there was an “angry, violent veteran beneath the surface,” said Cancian, who fought in Iraq and returned to a senior government job in Washington.
During his job search, he said, he sensed that some interviewers had subtly inquired whether he would be able to hold up under the strain of a demanding Washington job immediately after his combat tour.
“When you talk about your service, you need to counter the negative impressions,” Cancian recalled telling his sons.
The article goes on:
Lower-ranking officers feel a similar frustration. “America has unwittingly accepted the idea that its warriors are victims,” Lt. Col. John Morris, a chaplain for the Minnesota Army National Guard, told the Rotary Club of St. Paul in August.
Morris visited the Rotary Club to encourage business leaders to offer internships to veterans who face an unemployment rate that is almost twice the state average. “Why are we unemployed, after we have done one of the greatest things in our lives, and that is serve our nation in combat?” he asked. “I think it is because America has bought into the notion that we might be damaged goods.
Perhaps the most disconcerting problem facing the modern American veteran is the public’s preconceived view of what constitutes “normal” behavior in a veteran. In the Post article, the retired colonel warns his sons that people may wonder if they are an “angry, violent veteran beneath the surface.” It’s as if people are watching, waiting for you to slip up and show normal human emotion, something they can tie in with your service. This mentality has swept into the American mindset and leaves even the highest educated individuals in a world erroneous beliefs regarding their perception of the veteran population. To be frank, it’s quite overwhelming to witness an entire generation of people who knowingly threw themselves into harm’s way be cast as sufferers and bitter.
Where the WWII generation came home as liberating heroes, the Korean War vets were forgotten, the Vietnam vets were exposed to a spiteful public, and the Desert Storm servicemember saw tickertape parades, I fear our generation has already been unfairly type casted by a disengaged public—a group of people that can only go off a collective frame of mind that chooses to see us as they want to, not as we are: resilient, patriotic, and happy to live a life in peace, because we understand more than our peers what pain is.
To steal from the great Grantland Rice, I must say this of the 21st Century American war fighter’s future: For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against our name, he writes not that we won or lost, but how we brought the fight. And we fought. We fought when the public, pundits, and politicians sat on the sidelines of the mess they created, and we want nothing more than to have our part of history written with accuracy. But for now, it seems America loves herself a crazy vet.
To my fellow veterans: break the mold. Make the public recognize you and your success.