Progress by Bee Lavender

There are six military installations in the county where I grew up. More than half the adult population is directly employed by the federal government, and the rest work in the auxiliary or service industries that spring up around bases.
Growing up in a military town a few principles are very clear. Discipline, obedience, and patriotism are essential. Respect for veterans and the people currently serving in the military is mandatory. There is no discourse about the ethical construct of the choice: the draft was repealed long ago and our standing military is made up wholly of people who had a free choice to serve.
Beyond that, people who grow up in impoverished communities see the military as one of the only legitmate routes to a career. The armed forces offer job training, a regular paycheck, and access to free higher education. Very few people in my graduating class went to college. Many scores of people joined the military.
My teenage sweetheart chose the army when he found out I was pregnant. At the time, it was the only practical choice; there were no other jobs that provided health insurance and prospects for travel and training. It seemed like a rather grand adventure, a decent and honorable choice. I suppose that I could have gone on welfare, but applying for state aid was antithetical to my upbringing. For five years, I was a military dependent spouse.
My little family scraped by on enlisted wages; if memory serves, the base salary for a PV1 at the time was about $800 per month. The waiting lists for housing were impossibly long and often, families were transfered before they got to the top of the list. The housing allowance was a paltry sum that did not cover even a quarter of the average rent in the area. I stopped using the military hospital the day I had to argue with a lab technician to change his gloves and get a clean needle before a blood draw.
Even with promotions, a housing allowance, and combat pay, my husband never earned more than $1,100 per month. On that sum of money, we ran two households (because my doctors would not sign the papers to let me live in the places my husband was stationed), paid for daycare, and I commuted one hundred and twenty miles per day to attend college. My chooling was paid for by a cultural diversity scholarship. I remember feeling extraordinarily lucky: we were both working insanely hard, and earning so little that we did not even rise above the federal poverty standard, but we were working not just to support the family but to serve a larger ideal. We were proud of our choices.
My great-uncles fought in WWI and when they got home to the farm they were much decorated; they lit a big fire in the pasture and burned all their clothes and medals and letters and pictures. They never married, nor did they talk about the war.
My grandfather was on the beach at Normandy and he participated in the liberation occupation. He told stories of starving people who offered to trade family jewels for any scrap of food.
I have uncles and cousins who fought in Korea and Vietnam. They don't talk too much about what they saw; a family friend once told me that after the Tet Offensive, the dead bodies were like waves on the ocean.
In college I studied history, and then went into a graduate public administration program. My background, education, and family guarantee that I do not have reflexive, anti-historical reactions to current events. I see our choices as part of a lustrous panorama, a struggle to achieve a balance between intervention and isolation. We were once a rebel society. We fought a war against king and kin for liberation and freedom:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled
Here once embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world
I believe in the principles of that war. I understand and appreciate the great struggle that preceded our declaration of independence, and the consitution that followed years later. I've read the federalist papers. I disagree with many of the choices made by our government, but I know that my right to dissent is the greatest liberty of a democratic society. Any citizen who argues otherwise - particularly members of the media - renders our entire nation a grave insult.
Furthermore, I fully support the legitimacy of our armed forces. I think the military offers the only true hope for many people to get training and advancement, to move into the world. I think that we should increase the wages of those who serve; it is abhorent to me that a large number of military families live in poverty and rely on WIC and in some cases food stamps to make ends meet.
I wish that we as a society offered our veterans the benefits they deserve instead of abandoning them to the harsh ministrations of an underfunded Veterans Administration. When I was fifteen years old I volunteered at a VA retirement home and it was the grimmest, saddest experience of my youth. Those soldiers who fought for our freedom deserve better than what we offer; they deserve the finest accomodation, the kindest care.
I wish that our government offered more opportunities for people to serve; I think that the public health corps should be expanded. I think that we should start and fund additional programs to hire teachers for poor communities, to take medicine into rural communities. I believe in public service, incrementalism, the slow grind of progress. I am a populist and constitutional patriot. I'll vote for any party that proposes the next New Deal.
Twelve years ago I worried that my husband might be sent to war. Today I know that my dear cousin has been shipped out. The feeling is the same: dull acceptance, hedged by worry, tears blinked away throughout the day.
I am opposed to war on principle because I am opposed to all violent solutions to conflict. I truly believe that the ills of the world could be solved with adequate food and shelter, with expanded aid programs and a charitable approach to intervention. The United States of America has enjoyed peace between our own internal borders since the end of the Civil War, and the European Union offers hope for a continent recently choked by strife. Both are examples of deliberate administrative units implementing fiscal planning and rigorous social programs. I'm an optimist, but I'm pragmatic. I believe that freedom and peace are both necessary and possible.
I want our soldiers to know they have the substantial and real support of the government that sent them overseas. I want recognition of Gulf War Syndrome, and adequate treatment for the families already suffering. I want the soldiers who will be impacted to get immediate treatment and counseling. I want those currently diagnosed and the children who will be born to be guaranteed full, high-quality, life-long health care. To paraphrase signs I saw all over Fort Lewis twelve years ago: I want my cousin, not a bodybag.
The federal budget on offer right now will give rich people tax cuts and cut back on programs for veterans. I want this inherent duplicity reversed. I want to give the tax cuts and services to the people who have put their lives on the line, the people who served this nation, who gave up their youth and health, who carry the memories of war in their hearts and minds.
Progress has to start somewhere.
Regardless of whether you are left or right, conservative or liberal, middle of the road, Republican or Democrat or Independent, Libertarian or Green, you must understand and believe that your voice is urgently needed at this specific moment in history. This is a democracy and the only way we can assure change is through participation. I've heard lots of people say that their voice doesn't count, that the electoral college makes voting redundant, that the system is too corrupt to bother. I think that all of those opinions represent lazy cynicism and flawed logical reasoning. The only way to effect change is through deliberate action, hard work, and persistence.
The next congressional recess is scheduled for the week of April 14-25. This means that your elected representative will be home and available to meet with consituents. If you have an opinion, you need to make your position clear. Write letters. Call. Fax. Send email. Make an appointment and go in person. Coordinate with friends and family to go as a group. Take your kids. Help your kids write letters - they need to feel that their voices are heard. If you do not support the war, you need to actively, deliberately make that clear to the people who represent your interests.
There is a crisis looming. We need to get the following messages to our elected officials:
-Allocate sufficient funds to pay for this war. Our economy, our country, cannot afford to write a blank check.
-Hold our leaders and military accountable to international law and the treaties we have signed.
-Support our troops in a substantial, realistic way. Put back the money taken out of the military budget that would have improved quality of life for the armed forces. Raise their wages. Raise the benefits to their families.
-Create a consistent, clear plan to identify and treat the medical problems our soldiers will have after this conflict. Recognize that there will be many decades of incapacity for a large number of people who serve.
-Take care of our veterans. Put back the money taken away from the Veterans Administration. Make good on all the promises made; give our veterans the honor they deserve by funding their medical care, counseling, and elder services. Improve and expand all services to veterans who are on permanent disability.
-Oppose any and all efforts to limit our constitutional rights.
To contact your elected officials:
Bee Lavender is the publisher of and the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Lessons in Taxidermy.