A few months ago I was at the best place in the world – Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri. I take my family there several times a year. The roller coasters are top notch, the shows are fun, and everyone is in a constant state of joy; it’s great.
It’s also a veteran’s hangout. Every day when the park opens they honor all the veterans. We line up, march to the flag pole, and salute as we sing the anthem and say the pledge. (I normally explain to people that the pledge is big-government socialist propaganda, but I make an exception for Silver Dollar City). Once or twice I’ve even been the one to carry and raise the flag. It’s always nostalgic and fun to talk with other veterans, especially since I’m often the youngest one there.
Last time, I had just finished a coaster with one of my daughters when we had to run from some rain. My wife and kids ran indoors to get out of the rain and grab some lunch as I spotted a scruffy guy with a submarine hat. I knew from the submarine number on his hat it was an old boat. I struck up a conversation, motioned to my hat, told him I was a nuke electrician, and asked him what he did. He told me how he mostly loved his time as a submariner, and even somehow got to work on "pig boat" for a while – the old diesel submarines characterized by their relatively short but fat shape. I don’t remember his original navy job, but he was also a diver. Navy divers come from a proud tradition, of course. He told me about their mine-sweeping operations in the rivers of Vietnam, and how he’d often volunteer to stand watch topside so that his buddies could take liberty. He liked the fresh air and dark nights. That is, until he didn’t anymore.
Where they were, sabotage was a rare, but realistic threat. So, they had to stay vigilant. Like any foreign war, this task is often challenging because you’re surrounded by civilians just trying to get by in the midst of war. In this area, people would come to the waterfront and collect plastic trash where the currents would pool heaps of it together. One night, he saw someone come up to the edge of the sub. They ignored his yelling, commands, and even warning shots.
He ended up killing a 12-year-old girl. Then, he said soberly, "They even gave me an award for it."
As the rain continued to drizzle on us he said. "So I put a shotgun in my mouth."
I missed a few of the following details, but I wasn’t about to ask him to tell it again.
Seeing the pain in his eyes cut me to the heart. "I’m so sorry that happened to you" and after a pause I said, "I’m pretty anti-war."
"Me too" he replied solemnly.
Even before that moment, him and his buddies knew the war was pointless, but being away from the shooting and knowing there was nothing they could do about it, they made the most of it and didn’t complain. Of course, this changed everything.
He told me that many people didn’t support veterans the way they do today, even though the wars are just as stupid. Nonetheless, he took his honorable discharge and new lifetime pension and decided to do something honorable with it. He went to DC, wore his dress blues (he laughed about how against the rules it was) and protested the hell out of the war till the very end.
Like him, I was relatively safe tucked away on a submarine hundreds of feet below the surface of the ocean. Although we were never shot at, the Navy often really sucked. Since my enlistment has ended, I’ve known several vets or active-duty sailors who have killed themselves. Many people suggest that if we all just care hard enough, wear ribbons, or change the borders on our Facebook photos that fewer Veterans might kill themselves. The numbers are insane: The VA says around 20 veterans and active duty servicemembers kill themselves every single day; but a recent, exhaustive 4-year-long study shows that an alarming number of suicides don’t get reported as veterans, so the number for veterans alone is most likely closer to 24 a day.
Sure, a large piece of this can be chalked up to how stressful military life is and how difficult it can be for many servicemembers to transition to the normal world again, but many of us are convinced that one of the largest factors is the overall culture and the sense of waste and futility in "the system." Both externally and inside the military, many have little faith in the leadership at the top and the missions they generate. This includes military and political leadership.
I want to be very clear. In the Navy we knew what we were signing up for: deployments, impossibly long-hours, sleepless nights, and incredibly demanding challenges. When it was necessary for the mission, we gave it our all and did it with pride. Honestly, I loved a lot of it. Operating a mobile nuclear power plant underwater is pretty cool. What did bother us though, was when "the suck" was so clearly unnecessary or politically motivated. How much more frustrating and depressing would it be to be sent across the globe to a desert, told to "win hearts and minds" and told to build a foreign government while blowing things up and shooting at people in a country known as "the graveyard of empires"? It was clearly a futile, impossible task – a fool’s errand. To top it off, you can’t even explain why you’re there to your loved ones. I wonder how many soldiers have felt like the Medal of Honor recipient, Retired Major General Smedley Butler who wrote "War is a racket. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives."
When this loss of life comes at the hands of the state, it seems many people don’t even blink.
If 24 Wal-Mart workers killed themselves every single day, would we say the problem is that Wal-Mart is underfunded? That Wal-Mart needs more support? More awareness? More resources? No, of course not. We would demand accountability! The toxic leadership would get gutted. Vast amounts of people would rightly be screaming for answers. Protests would abound.
In the US Defense state, however, the failed leadership usually just get promoted to start more wars. In congress they go on to write more bills, vote for more spending, or eventually become a lobbyist. On the military side they often become defense contractors, think-tankers, or leadership of weapons manufacturers. Sometimes, like Biden’s current Secretary of Defense, they go from the board of directors of a major weapons manufacturer to the President’s top advisor.
And you know what…why not? Why shouldn’t the Secretary of Defense come from a seven-figure job from the board of directors of a major weapons manufacturer? At least we’re being honest about it! Corporate interests set global policy, throwing around trillion-dollar spending bills like they’re settling a lunch check, deciding to sponsor wars like they’re debating a large business investment – because that’s exactly what they’re doing. Leadership in the military and security state is a "good boys club". Only those with allegiance to the bureaucratic and forever-war mentality get ahead. Only those who think that war, starting wars, pushing for wars, and sponsoring wars are allowed to speak on the national stage. Anyone calling for cease-fires and negotiations so that people stop dying by the tens of thousands is branded as a "Putin puppet" and corporate media and the DC establishment call them "weak".
It takes zero courage to say the popular thing. Right now, it takes zero courage in D.C. to say that Russia is bad and we should keep fighting them to the last Ukrainian. But here’s the thing, if this stupid proxy war with Russia goes hot, it’s not just somewhat likely, but arguably probable that literally everyone you know dies. Maybe it’s because I slept in-between a bunch of intercontinental nuclear ballistic missiles, but it seems to me that the average person (and even worse the average politician and policy maker) has no understanding of what nuclear war would mean – mutually assured destruction of everyone.
This is not how the founders designed it. This is not how the constitution says it’s supposed to be. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Tens of thousands of dead Ukrainians and Russians is not some steep cost we must bear to ensure democracy lives on. Vets putting shotguns in their mouths is not some "hard price" we have to pay to keep us free. Endless, counterproductive wars are not some "hard price" that we must pay to "defend democracy." Overthrowing governments (often democratically elected) on the other side of the planet are not some tough decisions that serious people in DC need to make for us in order to defend our way of life, especially when it creates horrific civil wars in those countries. Furthermore, all of these things make it more likely to get servicemembers killed, both over there and here at home.
Let’s be clear: our freedom has nothing to do with any of this. And empty rhetoric praising veterans does nothing – absolutely nothing – to support veterans. "Raising awareness" of veteran suicide does nothing to stop it. So if we actually want fewer veterans to put shotguns in their mouths like my fellow submarine veteran, you have to go after the beasts that are the real issue: toxic, career-focused, failed leadership; endless, counterproductive, unwinnable wars which ask service members to accomplish impossible, insane goals like nation-building; the corrupt, crony, greed-driven foreign policy establishment bought and paid for by weapons manufacturers and foreign governments. These people wrap their cronyism in an American flag, call it patriotism, and expect us to thank them for it when they hand us and our children the trillion dollar bills.
It’s enraging. I didn’t join the military so that Lockheed Martin could sell a $1.727 Trillion boondoggle plane that barely even works and has failed to meet nearly any of its promises. I didn’t join the military so that foreign governments like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, and Israel could lobby my government to support their foreign wars. The corruption is so brazen. Worst of all, they don’t even hide it, it’s publicly reported! They spend tens of millions of dollars a year funding "experts" to get on CNN, ABC, FOX, and NBC to tell you that endless war is necessary to keep you safe. It’s all so obviously corrupt, dumb, and unnecessary.
So yes, I do think this corrupt, toxic environment plays into the staggering numbers of veteran suicides. I do think the fool’s errands our good men and women in uniform are sent on by the foreign policy establishment in DC plays a role. Most veterans say the Iraq and Afghanistan wars weren’t even worth it. This trend continues for most other wars in which the US has been involved over the past couple decades: Iraq (several times), Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, a drone war in Pakistan, plus operations in Mali. Honestly, I probably missed a country or two. Even now, the US still has troops in Somalia – now the longest war in history for the US. Do you think your neighbor can explain Somalia to you? There’s even a famous movie which most people can’t tell you takes place in Somalia, let alone why the troops were there – and still are!
All these wars have chewed up millions of unnecessary deployments from our servicemembers. I doubt the effect on servicemembers is a priority when setting the ever-growing behemoth we call a defense budget, set to reach nearly $850 Billion this year. This is more than the next 9 countries combined! Most of which are official allies! And actually, when you include all defense spending (such as the DHS and the like) it’s been over $1 Trillion dollars for years.
Once again, I do think massive failures of political and military leadership have played a large role in creating an environment where so many of their people kill themselves. While I was on the USS Nevada, a fellow sailor heard the squadron commander say while on board "sailors are like craftsman tools, you use them until they break and then you get a new one." Even if he said this tongue-in-cheek (because we submariners admittedly have a dark sense of humor) the fact is…it’s true. With an endless budget backed up by an inflationary money-printing machine, you can always just buy a new one.
I’m past the point of caring if someone calls me unpatriotic. If "patriotism" means blind submission to government, its wars, and its infringement on our liberties and its desecration of constitutional values, then no, I’m no patriot. But I think we all know that this is not what the word means. Loving your country is different than loving your government. I love my country and want what is best for it; I just happen to believe that our government directly opposes these values.
The apostle James wrote "If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?" That’s the equivalent of slapping a "support our troops" or "remember our veterans" sticker on your truck. It’s the equivalent of changing your profile picture to include a flag. If we want to support our troops, we need to speak up against the ones who can actually do something about it. If you want to support our veterans, if you want to do your part in lowering the number of dead service members and vets every single day, then demand accountability from the failed leadership. Write your congressman and tell them you’re sick of foreign military intervention. Right now, there’s a huge opportunity to end US support for the Saudi’s war in Yemen – a war far worse than even the war in Ukraine.
Stop voting for the clueless war hawks.
In your state senate, urge your representative to defend the guard, blocking the federal government from using the National Guard for foreign wars.
While we’re at it, call for an end to the disastrous drone bomb campaigns which have left untold numbers of civilians dead. According to an estimate from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as many as 2,200 civilians have been killed in US drone strikes. It is not some "hard price" which needs to be paid, and we sure as hell don’t need to be tossing whistleblowers into prison for years for revealing to the public how deathly irresponsible US officials have been with their remote control bombers. Imagine being the pilot ordered to drop bombs on groups of people you don’t know as they sit around a camp fire, later learning it was a group of innocent farmers and 30 of them were killed. Or imagine this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Or this, a US supplied bomb which killed 40 children in school busses. I wonder what sort of effect that has on servicemembers when they come back home.
And for the love of God, stop conflating support for war with support for the troops! The opposite is true, and that should be blatantly obvious to everyone.
It’s not hard. All we have to do is stop. Freedom works! What’s best for our servicemembers is the same thing that’s best for our country. Let’s honor our veterans by ending wars and bringing our troops home.
Jonathan Grotefendt was a 1st Class Petty Officer, Nuclear-Trained Electrician’s Mate on the USS Nevada, an Ohio-Class Submarine. After his 6 years in the Navy, he moved his family to Central Texas where they built a house and homeschool their 4 beautiful children.