The latest State of the Union address and the Super Bowl were the worst examples of military exploitation I’ve seen in quite a while. And before you tell me I’ve got to relax, know this: Veterans are under fire. Benefits are being taken away, treatment and care are being denied (there are too many stories and links for this one, look it up yourself), VA care is mediocre at best and takes longer than it should to provide care and access, veteran unemployment rate is higher than the national average, Force Shaping is in play (meaning that service members nearing retirement can be forced out before they can retire and get benefits), and suicides are at an astonishing level (these numbers don’t include family members either). All the while they are being told to suck it up. After sucking it up – nay, embracing the suck- for their entire military careers. So watching huge corporations and, worse yet, the POTUS (and FLOTUS) exploit veterans as a way to gain positive benefits for themselves is the very definition of exploitation.
The State of the Union address made me uncomfortable and angry. Why? Because a veteran who sacrificed more than I an comprehend was trotted out in front of the very people who voted to cut his retirement benefits, to applause. That applause was earned, fought for, and well deserved, but coming from our representatives in D.C? It meant nothing, because they didn’t and don’t value what he did, what he gave up, what he stands for. They care about re-elections, money, lobbyists, and a whole slew of unimportant things, but make no mistake: They do not care about veterans. Which is why the COLA cuts passed with nary a protest. Which is why no real action is being taken to improve the VA system. Why Force Shaping is the thanks being doled out to those who volunteered to serve when our nation needed them, just in time to prevent them from collecting retirement benefits. No pause, saying, perhaps screwing over veterans who have already served isn’t the best idea (or fair, or ethical) given that they’ve all been at war for 12 years, I bet there are ways we could actually help them. (There is another rant to be had about their claims that younger veterans can make scads of money right now because they are in prime working age so they don’t need the COLA money- never mind that those benefits were already promised, their time has been served, and all veterans- though especially those dealing with much more serious injuries, mental and physical, from war time- have a much, much harder time finding post-service employment, but I’ll let someone else tackle that another day.)
The Super Bowl gifted us with an atrocious ad from Budweiser. No, the parade featured wasn’t atrocious, it was heartwarming. Even I can admit that. And sending him and his wife to the Super Bowl wasn’t atrocious either. But using the feel good (and hard earned, intensely emotional, and frankly difficult) moment of homecoming as a way to sell beer? That IS atrocious. Because it only benefits Budweiser. And it feeds into the disgusting Reunion P0rn that allows the rest of the world to feel good about homecomings without any of the emotional baggage, fear, worry, and struggle that goes into making those moments so sweet.
And lets not forget the tribute to our military shown at the Super Bowl, which had its heart in the right place. But seeing Michelle Obama and Jill Biden saying all the right things about how great our military members are rang so hollow and, again, made me angry. Because, despite her claims and efforts to help military families, I’ve not heard the FLOTUS speak out once against the COLA cuts or Force Shaping or even better standards for the VA system. That isn’t to say she hasn’t done good work for military families, but we need someone to stand up with us on these bigger issues, and she isn’t.
What it all boils down to, for me, is that these groups, companies, and politicians are shamelessly using the military to gain good well while doing absolutely nothing to help them. Clearly veterans (and their families) are struggling. They sacrifice, the volunteer, they suffer, and then they get the bare minimum in return. (This is hyperbole, yes, there are benefits, however many of these promised benefits are coming under fire and being diminished, or are so hard to gain access to they become moot.)
Budweiser is exploiting us. Kay Jewelers is exploiting us. The POTUS is exploiting us. The list goes on. They are parading us out to make everyone feel all warm and fuzzy about how amazing our troops are, how much they sacrifice, and how proud they make us. But they are doing nothing to actually help. The POTUS agreed to cutting the retirement benefits of veterans who have already served their contracts. How is that helping? He promised to fix the VA system but has done nothing. Budweiser claims to help veterans but their programs are paltry at best, especially for a company that saw almost $40 BILLION in revenue last year alone. Kay Jewelers doesn’t mind playing the deployed spouse card to get you to buy a necklace, but the best they can do for veterans is offer a measly discount. The FLOTUS got to say glowing words about how amazing our military members are in front of the largest audience on television, yet she has not enacted meaningful changes regarding the biggest issues facing veterans.
So, here is the real question: Why do so many military members and families fall all over themselves with praise for companies and individuals that are clearly exploiting them?
I ask this in all seriousness. I watched Twitter and Facebook explode with messages of goodwill and thanks from military families to Budweiser and the FLOTUS during and after the Super Bowl. Same with the POTUS after his State of the Union address. We are earnestly giving heartfelt thanks to the very people who are exploiting us. Thanking the very people who are merely saying the right words, showcasing the happy reunions, and reaping the good will while doing nothing to help veterans or their families. In some cases, these people are actively hurting the veteran community! WHY ARE WE PRAISING THIS?
Are we that starved for attention that we can’t help but beam with pride whenever anyone mentions us or gives us the time of day, regardless of context? Are we just glad someone helped everyone else remember, for just a minute or two, that we are still at war?
I can’t decide. I know there was one time, early on in my transition to military dependent, that I might have viewed these things in a positive light. But it didn’t take long for me to see that these elaborate displays of patriotism were nothing but thin veneers, backed by nothing of substance. It is the commercial and political equivalent of the yellow ribbon magnet. And yet these companies and politicians are making huge financial gains by trotting out their token veteran. They get bumps in polling numbers, they get the feel-good purchase at the liquor store, they get rich. All while the veteran community continues to struggle. AND WE LET THEM.
Where is the outrage? Where are the letters and campaigns to be treated with more respect? To get the help veterans need and deserve? Where is the anger at being used and abused for others’ personal and financial gain? Where is the demand for better treatment, actual support, and keeping promises that were made in recruiter offices 20+ years ago?
I want to know what you all think. Do you think we, the military community, are being exploited? Are we encouraging this exploitation by showing support for such displays? (I’d say yes.) Are we actually gaining something from this that I’m not seeing? Or do you agree and think it is time to speak up, tell politicians and companies that we aren’t for sale and we aren’t your feel-good story, not unless you actually help.
So, spout off in the comments. I hope this opens up a dialogue and lets y’all know that it is okay to not feel good about these feel-good moments. (And if you agree, don’t be afraid to tell Budweiser and the like what you think. Social media can be really powerful, but you all knew that.)
*I’ve written here before, as Tucker, in case you are wondering who I am and where I came from!