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Elan Barnehama: Making the work of servicemen and women more visible

At 10 a.m. today, malls and retail stores across the United States will open their doors to eager shoppers seeking Veterans Day discounts offered to honor those who have served in our nation’s military branches.

On the same morning, at precisely 11 a.m., in a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, a wreath will be placed on the Tomb of the Unknowns to honor those same veterans.

Originally observed to commemorate the end of World War I and the signing of the Armistice on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, Veterans Day evolved to honor all our military veterans. The expansion of the holiday was made necessary because World War I, the war to end all wars, wasn’t. Given the technological advances of modern weapons, it is almost certain that the next war to end all wars will most likely end everything else, too.

So, until we either end wars, or wars end us, the U.S. will continue to have a large and powerful military. Yet, for all its size and power and cost, it has become far too isolated from most communities. Our wars have become invisible, fought by a tiny percentage of our population, who come from a shrinking demographic, and who are stationed at fewer bases in fewer areas of our nation. We are not safer, nor are our elected leaders less likely to send our military into wars of choice, just because we don’t see them.

What happens to the men and women in uniform is all of our responsibility. They go where they are asked (told really), sent by leaders we elect and funded by dollars we contribute. If we are wary of their missions, if we oppose their drain on our budget, then we must not avoid them.

We should have bases every where, see soldiers regularly, interact with military families daily. High school students and their families should not have the option to opt out of receiving mail from our nation’s military branches. It’s simply too easy for too many of us to ignore the reality of our military.

We should be having an open and ongoing debate about the role of our military and not the drone of sound bites we were subjected to during the election season — a drone expected to continue as Congress debates (ignores) the fiscal cliff.

The very troubling number of suicides among those who have served, the loss of family members, the shameful statistic of homeless veterans, the ongoing medical challenges, the toll that deployment takes on military families — we all share the responsibility to address these issues.

Parades for Veterans Day and Memorial Day, sales at the mall, and antiwar protests should not be the only times we think about our military.

Accepting the fact that we have a military is not an endorsement of war, it is an endorsement of reality. And it’s also the only way to avoid the reckless use of our military. And isn’t that the best way to honor the men and women who serve?

Elan Barnehama is a writer who lives in Leeds.

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