Should Iraq War veterans support national parades?

Originally published in The Washington Times

DALLAS, TX, February 11, 2012 – As New York City and Foxboro, Massachusetts hoped to celebrate a Super Bowl win with a ticker-tape parade for their football champions, Paul Rieckhoff, accomplished Army veteran and Founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) issued a press release titled “If the Giants or Pats get a parade, shouldn’t Iraq vets?” His plea for a National Day of Action calls on the White House and mayors nationwide to coordinate a massive day of parades and community “resource villages” for Iraq War veterans.

The idea of a parade for veterans of Iraq has ignited a controversy for both veteran and civilian communities, resurrecting complicated feelings. Naturally, many politicians are in full support; parades are easy commitments.

“This is not a victory celebration,” said Vincent Ignizio of The New York City Council. “This is a welcome home of a massive amount of troops that are coming home that served us with honor and those that paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
Mitt Romney, Republican Presidential candidate agrees, “Whether that’s a ticker tape parade, or whether it’s a special ceremony somewhere else, welcoming our troops home is something they deserve.”

Though the White House has sided with the Department of Defense’s comments that national parades were inappropriate while wars continue abroad, should momentum continue it would be wise to switch positions for political advantage. Nationwide fanfare celebrating the end of the Iraq War would surely remind voters which candidate brought the troops home in an election year.

Most civilians are ecstatic over the prospect of national parades and for good reason. Though public support for the war in Iraq waned significantly over the last decade, support for the military did not.

“Civilians want to say ‘thank you’ for your sacrifice. Vets usually are by nature, a humble lot whose perception is that they just did their job. A parade is a public recognition of them and their job well done; it also inspires patriotism, love of country, commitment,” says Kaye McCoy, veteran advocate and wife of a U. S. Navy Vietnam combat veteran.

Craig Schneider, citizen organizer of the highly successful St. Louis parade, which generated thousands of supporters, remarked that he was amazed by the response, from city officials to military organizations to the media.

“It was an idea that nobody said no to,” he said. “America was ready for this.”

It seems Schneider was right. As reported in St. Louis Today, the group planned to raise $7 million in seven days. Civilians around the country are now clamoring to organize in the same fashion, hoping to show their hometown heroes how much they are loved, valued and honored.

All across America, many Iraq veterans are showing their support for this new campaign, too. To some, it is comforting that formerly apathetic civilians acknowledge their sacrifices. Serving in the military can be akin to leading a second life, and demonstrations of support make them feel less forgotten and more welcomed by their community. They hope these events will foster stronger community relationships between civilians and servicemembers. Veterans of past generations typically side with this sentiment, and hope the post 9/11 generation will not be treated as poorly as they were.

“I think most Americans agree, if the Giants deserve a Super Bowl parade, so do the one million Iraq veterans who have served,” said Reickhoff.

This is a reasonable argument that politicians and media support completely. In the civilian realm, there are some that opposed the Iraq War and therefore do not support this campaign. They believe the concept of a nationwide parade stands as a testament to continued citizen denial regarding the conflict’s legacy and the public’s complicity with unlawful war. They assert that the past ten years have revealed terrible truths: that Iraq was invaded under false pretenses contrived by a corrupt administration willing to exchange American wealth and lives, not for Iraqi freedom but to secure defense contracts and oil futures for major corporations. They feel that the failure of civilians to hold their politicians accountable for deceptions to which veterans bore the brunt, deems the entire affair a charade of willful ignorance.

Many wish to separate the mission from the veteran and feel such a nationwide event would make this more difficult for those passionate on the subject. To Mandy, an anti-war advocate, the campaign places veterans in the middle of a deeply divisive issue for superficial displays of gratitude.

“If anything, we should be apologizing, not throwing a party. We beat the war drums and two years later, forgot we were at war.”

Some veterans agree.

“If they were grateful, they could point out Iraq on a map 10 years later, or take time out of their day to understand why we were sent there, or would volunteer at a VA. But that requires sacrifice and a party is much easier. That’s how America already solves its problems,” says an officer of the United States Army, a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq facing his fourth deployment before Christmas of this year. Tristan Tucker, veteran of the U.S. Navy delves further, “I think it is really (bleeped), but it embodies American values perfectly. So many Americans don’t see the military as individual men and women; they see “it” as a noun – a faceless organization that goes to war.”

Other veterans are less cynical, but feel uncomfortable with the singular attention on Iraq veterans. “This isn’t WWII, Korea or Vietnam. I think about what those men endured and count my blessings. If civilians want to show their love through a parade, do it for all of us, and do it by making our annual Veteran’s Day parades even better. If they want to acknowledge our service in Iraq, build us a monument in our hometowns, something sincere that we can share with our children’s children,” said Scott, a former Marine and Iraq War veteran.

He continued, “My buddy is living in squalor. His wife left him, he can hardly get around, the VA lost his paperwork twice and he’s not paid his mortgage in four months. He won’t answer his door because he’s afraid of eviction. What’s he going to do? Watch the parade from his non-existent television? We’re in pain. This is insulting and stupid.”

Active duty veterans generally agree. The U.S. government has declared “Mission Accomplished” a second time, as of December 2011, but those on active-duty are still deployed to Kuwait in anticipation of potential Iraqi civil war. The War in Afghanistan is our longest enduring conflict, so while negotiations with Taliban commanders have begun and a 2014 withdrawal has been promised, 28 American lives have been lost since the New Year. Furthermore, men and women that served multiple tours in Iraq are currently deployed in Afghanistan with more preparing to leave their families, careers and lives for the looming abyss of combat.

The Department of Defense echoed this somber voice, earning heat from media and politicians over reluctance to condone national celebrations. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “We simply don’t think a national-level parade is appropriate while we continue to have America’s sons and daughters in harm’s way.” As for how veteran’s service organizations see the campaign, though the IAVA is dedicated to our veterans and therefore enthusiastic about this issue, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars remained respectfully distant, either declining to make a statement or expressing reservations.

Iraq veterans who steer clear of politics are also bewildered by the focus on parade fundraising and organization when veteran neglect and injustice persist in every major American city. “It’s a nice gesture, but it shows you how disconnected they are to our reality. Civilians need to understand that we had dog and pony events in the military, so a parade is mostly for them. We’re starving, we’re homeless, and we’re unemployed. If millions of dollars in resources for nationwide parades are available, spend them wisely and not just on Iraq veterans,” said a career active-duty Army officer planning to deploy to Afghanistan this year, and member of the IAVA.

For those who work closely with veterans and their needs, this sentiment is mirrored. Many are hurt or angered by the potential of frivolous waste while veterans and their families languish. After decades of broken promises and more expected once election season is over, many find it ironic that they are suffering unfathomable neglect from the establishment seeking to honor them via these celebrations. With a veteran attempting suicide every 80 minutes, one out of three experiencing psychological trauma, and 260,000 potentially homeless this year, a grand parade is not on the priority list.

“The fact that fellow Americans want to show their gratitude is wonderful, but practicality and reality are required, not pomp and circumstance,” says Katie, a caretaker of a veteran. “There is real work to be done and we need help now!” Most politicians, media pundits, veterans and civilians would agree that Katie has a point. So how do we honor our veterans?

If a nationwide parade party is not appropriate considering the decay of veteran services and America’s continued war in Afghanistan, perhaps the energy and momentum could be directed more respectfully. The original organizers of the parade in St. Louis also hosted “resources villages,” which featured a community of available services and methods of assistance for Missouri’s veterans. As the IAVA has outlined, if cities coordinated resource villages nationwide, service members could connect with one another and their community in productive ways. Thousands of service organizations exist, hundreds of genuine volunteers are willing to help, and donations could be raised to make this element the best it can be.

If the inspiration to effect change is the motive, millions that would otherwise be spent in parade funds could build homes, easing the homeless crisis. If a physical representation of civilian gratitude is at the core of this campaign, the construction of hometown monuments for future generations would be a thoughtful gesture. Including private contractors, America has lost nearly 9,000 citizens in these wars; honoring those that were lost and those that returned with something permanent would give both civilians and warriors a place to pay respects.

Further, instead of pleading for support from Washington, all of that local energy and passion could rally Congress to keep their promises. Supporting the Protect VA Healthcare Act of 2012 (H.R. 3895), which stops any potential cuts to already underfunded Veteran’s Services, would be a wonderful place to begin. Chairman and Rep. Jeff Miller wrote to the Obama Administration, “due to a conflict [in the Budget Control Act of 2011], the Department of Veterans Affairs may be subject to a 2% cut in medical care—a cut that would significantly impact the care provided to America’s veterans.”

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has waited six months for reassurances without a single response. lists two co-sponsors, no media coverage and no citizen supporters that have contacted their representatives regarding this crucial bill. Florida and North Carolina are represented, but where is Congressional support from the other 48 states?

Parades are a time-honored, sentimental tradition for all American citizens, whether they’re warriors or civilians, but if those parade resources were used wisely, meaningful work could be done in every city. Politicians and the American people can use their motivation to help service members feel the warmth of true gratitude for longer than a day by mobilizing on their behalf to effect long-lasting change. Instead of pressing forward with our own agenda as to how to appreciate our local heroes, perhaps it is time we ask hometown veterans how we can best help them. Though not as grandiose or publicity-worthy, veterans need concrete steps now. The results of that dialogue would undoubtedly bridge the communication gaps between the two communities more sincerely and effectively than a party.