Who is a Veteran?

Written by: Dan Savage

As our nation marks Veterans Day, I thought it fitting to put some context to those we are honoring, by asking the question, “Who is a veteran?”  For some reading this, the answer to this question may seem obvious, but for others, it’s not quite so simple. It turns out that the definition of who exactly “counts” as a veteran depends entirely on who you ask.

I would guess that the average American on the street thinks of veterans as those who have deployed in support of a combat operation. Today, that would be someone who has been to Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Djibouti, or other locations throughout the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and the rest of the world in support of what we call the “Global War on Terror” or, in military-speak, the GWOT.

When asked which “wars” (Congress hasn’t actually declared war since 1942) they can name, most Americans probably stick with only the most famous – the ones we have monuments to in Washington, D.C.  But our nation has living combat veterans from scores of other conflicts, both named and unnamed. What about those who served on the island of Grenada in 1983 (Operation Urgent Fury); those who invaded Panama in 1991 (Operation Just Cause); those who famously fought in the streets of Somalia in 1993 (Operation Gothic Serpent); or those who deployed to Haiti (Operation Uphold Democracy) or the Balkans (Operation Allied Force) to ensure the survival of democracy and the prevention of a genocide? Even that list is nowhere near exhaustive, as the full accounting of U.S. military operations (in the last century alone) may be surprisingly long to all but the most serious history buffs.

If you ask a veteran, this answer gets even more complicated. When I was in the Army, and before I deployed, I used to think of the “veterans” in my unit as those who had deployed, and therefore I did not count myself or many of my soldiers in this category. I returned from Iraq in October 2008, so just a few weeks later I marked what I considered to be my first Veterans Day as an actual veteran (although the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) wouldn’t consider me as such until August 2010, when I actually left the Army).

And even among veterans, there’s kind of a quirky culture about whose service “counts” more than others. Marines think they are better than the Army, the Army thinks it’s better than the Navy, and almost everyone makes fun of the Air Force. At almost any given opportunity, a member of one service will undoubtedly find some reason, characteristic, culture, or combat ability for which to poke fun at the others, as though their own service branch is the only one doing the “real” work of winning our nation’s wars. I can tell you from personal experience, though, that when an Army infantryman needs an Air Force fighter pilot to drop a 5,000 pound bomb in Baghdad in order to protect his men, this goes right out the window.

Within each service, there are even more ways to segment the population. There’s a strange pride which comes from having lived through tougher circumstances or having suffered more than others in order to do one’s duty. Infantrymen (the special little club to which I proudly belong) have a time-honored tradition of referring to all others as POGs (pronounced “pogue”), standing for “Person Other than Grunt.”  When deployed, my men and I would return from weeks on end living in the slums of Baghdad to get a rare hot shower and the privilege of entering the pristine, mammoth chow hall on the sprawling Forward Operating Base (FOB) north of the city where the “POGs” lived (in this case, they were also lovingly referred to as “Fobbits”). All the while, I’m sure my men and I were looked down upon (and made fun of) by the special operations task forces which operated alongside us (Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Delta Force, etc.). Probably deservedly so.

But when you talk to individual vets, they will rarely, if ever, talk their service up (and those who do probably didn’t actually do whatever they’re telling you).  Even those awarded the Medal of Honor will never call themselves heroes. The friendly bravado between veterans is matched by a deeply ingrained humility about our service. No matter how elite the veteran, he or she will almost always minimize what they’ve done. I’ve seen some pretty nasty things (and I certainly don’t consider myself anywhere near elite), but I minimize my single (albeit 15 month-long) deployment because several of my friends are in the special operations community, and my service pales in comparison to theirs. In many ways, I feel guilty about leaving the Army while they continue to fight.

A good friend of mine who serves in the 75th Ranger Regiment (widely regarded as the most elite infantry regiment on the planet) deploys for three months, returns for six, deploys for three, returns for six, and on and on. He’s basically been doing this since 9/11, with only a few breaks in the pattern. He’s been in a compound in Afghanistan hunting a high-value target, and 24 hours later was at the dinner table at home with his family. Talk about jarring. This is the man who nominated Sergeant First Class Leroy Petry for his Medal of Honor for actions in a battle they lived through together. All that said, he is one of the most humble people I know. He is proud of what he does, but even he will find a way to talk it down – among veterans, there are always others who have done more than we have.

At the end of the day, though, everyone’s service matters, and in today’s wars, there really are no front lines. In military circles, this concept is known as the “tooth-to-tail” ratio, where each combat soldier (tooth) requires a massive support effort (tail) to get him on target. Without some officer performing the inglorious tasks of making sure there is clean water and hot food on remote outposts in Afghanistan for the “trigger pullers” to return “home” to, the war would grind to a halt.  Without logisticians and truck drivers and radio technicians and medical professionals, no one would be able to do their job. Even those outside of the theater of war perform critical tasks.  Without U.S.-based intelligence analysts poring over records for almost a decade, the Navy SEALs who killed Osama Bin Laden would never have known which house he was hiding in.

And as the federal government wisely recognizes, even those who served in peace time, as well as in war, deserve recognition for their service and for their willingness to sacrifice on behalf of their nation. Indeed, the qualifications for the benefits conferred by the VA are almost entirely unrelated to service in combat, but rather are conferred to all who have honorably worn the uniform of the United States.

Every man and woman in the history of the United States military who raised their right hand knowingly signed a blank check, willing to give their life should the needs of the nation so dictate.  Each of them deserves a heartfelt thank you, for each service member’s willingness to serve weaves together with that of all the others, creating the impenetrable blanket of freedom which our military provides. The mere existence of each one of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen combines with the existence of all the others, deterring our enemies and degrading their willingness to even think of threatening us. We should hope and pray that in the future we have more non-combat veterans to thank as, in some way, their lack of combat experience serves as a measure of the success of their deterrence.

America’s community of veterans is incredibly diverse. Without each and every one of them, we would not be able to live in freedom as we do today. Acknowledging the myriad of ways that our veterans have served their country, this year, don’t just say thank you. Ask them questions. Learn about their service. Take the time to understand them and what they have done on your behalf.  You may be surprised at what you learn, and even more impressed by the heroes walking among you.

Dan Savage is the Chief of Staff of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a former infantry officer, and a veteran of the war in Iraq.