Hashtag sympathy must be matched by real-world caring.
For those who have long been waiting for war to feel as personal to the American public as it is to Gold Star families, the moment has arrived. America’s wars have at last hit home.
But it is too easy to pile onto Donald Trump. Now is also a good moment to look in the mirror.
It makes us feel good to stand behind a Muslim American family who stood up for the son they had lost and the family they still are to say, ‘This is not America.’ And it is urgent that we do so, because it is an expression of who we are as a nation.
But after this story passes how many will still care about the Afghan-American civilians who have given their health and their limbs for this country? Or the Afghan-American interpreters killed in action alongside Special Forces out on the battlefield.
Or how about another Muslim American father I recently spoke with who lost his son in Iraq to an IED almost exactly nine years ago? About all the dads like him who have sacrificed their children for America? The father I mention said that he wants to remember his son, who died in August 2007, with respect and that reporters are only calling him now and asking about his boy because of the election.
In this moment of potato chip politics, after the point is scored, will the media and the American public remember the loss these and all Gold Star families feel every single day? Will we remember these wars go on even now? How many even knew that five service members were injured in Afghanistan just this past week?
When nearly every political moment has the lasting weight of a can of Pringle’s, we must ask whether we understand the weight of the Khan family’s loss. Might their grief finally be a gateway to thinking about what we ask of all the families who send their mothers, fathers, daughters and sons, wives and husbands into battle every day?
We have long been a nation that needed to get serious about engaging with its wars (and not just on the big screen,) to be honest with ourselves about the fact that we remain a nation at war, and to honor every day – not just when it coincides with our politics – the sacrifices that Gold Star and Blue Star families make for a nation that asks them to put all on the line. Even when it is for a country that on most days barely notices what they have given and everything they have lost.
Because be honest: How many of us even knew what Gold Star families and Blue Star families were before this latest media cyclone? After all, our government shut down in 2013 without asking who would pay death benefits during the Afghanistan War -- it was only when this publication raised the issue that Washington remembered there may be service members killed in action while Congress played politics.
I have had the privilege of spending the last three years in their world. I received an education to my own ignorance and an intimate understanding of the permanence and the enormity of such a loss. It is humbling and heartbreaking.
And far too many of us live miles away from its gravity. We can’t even be bothered to read the stories about the wars we think are over: in the last few years, stories about Iraq or Afghanistan don't even rank in the most-read stories of the year.
Talk to veterans and they will tell you: people don't really want to know their stories. They want to say ‘thank you for your service,’ offer up a handshake and move on. As the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, or IAVA, noted in a recent study, while 63 percent of veterans believe their public supports them, only 22 percent believe the public understands the sacrifices veterans have made.
An Afghan American interpreter I am close with, a civilian who served with U.S. special operations forces, feels the same. Recently she was treated at a local California hospital and a doctor — a doctor — asked her why she chooses a “religion that teaches people to kill people.” My friend neglected to mention, because she never would, that for the past five years she has been recovering with surgery and physical therapy from an injury she sustained during a night raid in Afghanistan and that she has never been the same person since the night an IED explosion nearly claimed her arm. She did not ask the doctor why she would ask a person who has served her country about her religion? Why the doctor, who had never been on America’s battlefields, felt perfectly comfortable probing about her faith instead of simply treating her as a patient?
Drive-through emotion doesn't cut it when our nation has asked these young men and young women to give their all for America. It is time to not just talk about hiring veterans, but to help veterans translate their skills into language employers understand. I have tried to help three veterans, all of whom have served in special operations forces, try to get jobs and three times I have been told they don’t’ have the “right experience” for more senior-level jobs. But how do you start at the bottom at age 30 or 35, after 13 deployments on your country’s behalf?
In the past few years I have heard highly educated people say that most people in the military “don’t have any other options.” I have read people who consider themselves progressive and feminists say that they “don’t know how they feel” about women’s advancement in the military. I have heard people with advanced degrees downplay the tragedy of an American killed in action since “what did they expect when they signed up?”
But mostly I have heard the deafening sound of apathy. And that must change. We don't get to simply pile on and express hashtag solidarity for one day. We must care every day. And if we engaged with our wars, we might be a nation that didn't have to feel the burden of “thank you for your service,” but could simply say: “Welcome back. We know what you have been doing and we appreciate it. And we have a job waiting for you.”
If you know a Gold Star family, say thank you. Better yet, ask them about those they have lost. Their stories are our country's. The least we owe them is to remember what they have given. For more than a day. Or a news cycle.
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