The Valorous Unit Award earned by the 3rd Battalion 173 Infantry (Mountain) of the Vermont National Guard is a deserved one. Nearly four years ago Vermont’s citizen soldiers were deployed to Afghanistan and did their job well, being recognized with the second-highest award for a unit in the armed forces.
The ceremony at Norwich University on Sunday reunited about 600 members of the battalion, which in early 2010 was deployed to a mountainous region of Afghanistan on the border with Pakistan. The Guardsmen did their job well, contributing to the fragile and emerging democracy in Afghanistan, and taking the fight to the enemy. The Guard will deploy again this year, but for a major training mission in Louisiana — in itself an honor, to be selected as one of a few units to participate in this training.
We should be reminded more often of these Vermonters.
The Vermont Army National Guard has been deployed en masse twice during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Smaller elements of the Army Guard have been deployed multiple times to those war zones and others, as have elements of the Vermont Air National Guard. Hundreds of Vermonters have also served in the regular armed forces and Coast Guard in what is now the United States’ longest war, as well as in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe.
When the public at large is reminded of the long years of war, we often reflect on the sacrifice, on what was lost. Vermont has had more than its fair share of fallen in these two wars, both in Guard units and in regular service. The cost of war has been high, even as its impact on the daily life of most Americans has been limited.
But we should also remember what we have gained from the service of these men and women — the ones who returned alive and the ones who didn’t. What we gain from them is not often expressed in a tangible way. With the exception of the local Guard response to Tropical Storm Irene, and many other disasters, the work of the soldiers is done far away, far from the view of the people they serve. We don’t understand the burden they bear, we don’t understand the sacrifice, and in some ways that is the point: They do it so we don’t have to.
Civilians are often at a loss at how to express gratitude, or express anything to a veteran returned from overseas, or the family of a service member. Often it is the words “thank you for your service,” that rise up in an attempt to bridge the gulf between the uniform and the civilian. This thanks is absolutely necessary, but it is not the full measure of what we can do.
An interview by the CNN reporter Jake Tapper of the former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell (the author of the memoir “Lone Survivor,” which was just released as a movie starring Mark Wahlberg) shows some of the uncomfortable distance between the military and civilian perspectives. Tapper asked a leading question about the “senseless” deaths of Luttrell’s SEAL teammates and many other service members on that remote mountaintop. Luttrell responded with incredulity: “...yes, it went bad for us over there but that was our job. That’s what we did. We didn’t complain about it. We went out there and did what we did best and at the end, we weren’t standing....”
Tapper does not represent the entire civilian world, neither does Luttrell represent every facet of the veterans. But the gulf is there, nonetheless. How could these deaths be meaningless if they came while among your friends in service to country? Do these deaths have meaning if the country is moving on from the war? There may be no right answer to these questions, but they should be asked.
The Vermonters are home — they have returned, mostly, to civilian life. They are not ordinary — we don’t need an award to tell us that, but it is nice. We should thank them for their service, often. But perhaps in addition we should live our lives to the fullest in gratitude for what they have done for us.
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