Veteran Privilege

A much younger me.

The prompt for this post is that yesterday, as I am writing this (you won’t see it until later), I received the first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. My super amazing girlfriend pointed out that it was the one-year anniversary of the pandemic. The reason it is causing me some internal angst is that I only got it because I am a veteran.

Here in Connecticut, they’re deciding vaccine eligibility (at least at the time of this writing, which is gonna be the caveat for this whole post) based purely on age, which I think is probably the best way to go about it. Given my youth and vigor, that would have made me eligible May 3rd at the earliest (at least until President Biden bumped up the time table slightly). However, turns out the Connecticut VA was providing vaccines for any veteran enrolled for health care, regardless of age.

I fretted about whether or not to go get it. I’m very enthusiastic about vaccines in general, and will take just about any I can get. However, during this particular vaccination drive we’ve seen wild disparities in access to the vaccine. As usual, people with money and resources have been able to get vaccines no problem while marginalized communities (I gotta figure out less sanitized language for those groups) have been turned away and maligned despite being eligible. So it felt very weird to me to be able to just waltz in yesterday and get it without even waiting in line.

The level of privilege we afford to veterans in this country is absolutely wild and it has always seemed that way to me. The photo at the top is me as a young Midshipman and it all started there. Even back then I was thanked pretty constantly for my service, despite never ever actually done anything besides go to school. I went to the Naval Academy from 2007-2011, so that was still in the era when 9/11 was a fresh memory and anyone tangentially related to the military got all sorts of free stuff. I think every single one of us felt weird about the whole thing, but I mentally justified my free tickets to Busch Gardens by imagining that one day I would actually do something.

Now, post my military service, I constantly wonder what was so special at military service at all. This hedging might be moot, since no one ever reads this blog, but I know I lived a very particular brand of military life. I never had to face down an enemy trying to shoot me and all my friends, nor did I ever feel that I was in real danger anytime during my service. I was also an officer, which meant that not only did I get eggs to order even when our ship was on a “mission vital to national security” (as the parlance goes), but that I also got to jump right to the front of the waffle line. Even given that, whenever I am afforded a privilege like getting to jump the vaccine line, I’m forced to wonder why I’m so special for this job I used to do.

Military life in many many ways was not a whole lot of fun. We spent a lot of time out at sea away from the world, we worked constantly, and there were a lot of different ways it was potentially dangerous. But is any of that all that special? Long-haul truckers spend a huge amount of time away from their families, but they don’t get the GI bill. Amazon warehouse workers are worked so hard they’re barely allowed to pee, but they don’t get discounts all over the place. And there are tons of dangerous jobs in the world, like loggers and septic tank servicers, but those people don’t get preferentially hired for government jobs and contracts.

I wonder what effect all the privilege granted to veterans has on both them, and currently serving military members. There is plenty of reason to provide veterans with extra resources when you consider that, as a group, veterans can have higher rates of homelessness and suicide than non-veterans (to caveat the other way, I also worry about even bringing that up, because there is another negative stereotype of veterans that they’re unstable and PTSD-riddled, which isn’t true either). My specific worry is that providing all this privilege to veterans is a way to avoid looking at the root cause of many of the problems that military members and veterans face.

I’m sorry I have no idea who originally generated this meme; if this Google image search link works, seems like it’s been reposted a lot.

The above meme caught my eye early in the pandemic. Even outside a pandemic scenario, I really hate martial metaphors in any discussion that doesn’t directly tie to actual warfighting, and even then I don’t like a lot of the terminology. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was especially queasy about all the “front line” language, and it wasn’t until I saw that meme that I really figured out why. The meme criticizes equating health workers with soldiers because it implies a certain number of health workers are going to die and that’s just something we should accept, instead of it being something avoidable.

In the same way, I think we need to interrogate how all the hero worship of veterans and the military implies about what we expect them to put up with. Another friend of mine from the Navy visited me the other weekend, and we were swapping sea stories when she told me that they recently figured out only at the last minute that one of the sailors she supervised had been planning to murder his entire chain of command (including her) and kill himself on his last day at work. This is a very normal story, actually. One night when I was on duty our topside watchstander (who was armed with a handgun) was talking about wanting to kill himself. I did not handle this situation well (no one was harmed in the end), but frankly it was just like, one of the many annoying things that happened that night. We had a number of suicidal sailors, and like my friend a sailor that I supervised who was armed seriously threatened to shoot a number of people. This event was too mundane for anyone to even tell me directly; I found out about it when it was mentioned in passing in the wardroom.

Suicide is the extreme end of the scale, but there are a whole lot of things that people in the military are just expected to put up with and are somehow considered just the normal and perfectly fine way of going about things. I think because we view military members as heroes that are making a sacrifice, and who will gain benefits for life for these sacrifices, we have no real motivation to actually make their life better. Or, at least, it keeps us from conceptualizing a world where we should do that. Every time I think about the terrible parts of Navy life, I think about the sailors on merchant ships, who do stunningly similar jobs to sailors in the Navy but somehow can also get months off every year just as a matter of course.

There are a whole lot of other things I’m not going to be able to eloquently weave in here that should also be interrogated on this subject (race and class are the obvious ones, but other things too). I think the progressive dream for America is in fact currently being implemented, at least in many ways, albeit it only within the confines of the veteran community. If the progressive dream is good, then it must be good that it is at least being partially implemented, right? But since it is framed as something that veterans “deserve” for their “sacrifice,” I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to work on making military service less of a sacrifice, or more importantly really remember why we granted veterans these privileges in the first place (veterans deserve a lot of things, but since when has what people deserve ever been a basis for governance in the United States?). Until we do the work of figuring out as a nation why we venerate veterans so highly, and importantly what effect and implications that has for every other American, I don’t know if we’ll be able to judge whether it’s more toxic than good.