Underneath the regalia and pomp and circumstance, Veterans Day is somewhat of an awkward experience for both veterans and civilians in how we interact. For us veterans, it’s often hard to accept thanks for going to war, when we know others have done and sacrificed far more than we have. It’s hard because not all of us join the military for such benevolent, patriotic reasons. Some of us join to break free from our hometowns. Some join to test themselves. And let’s face it, a lot of folks are like me and joined for the free education.
But for the civilian, the act of thanking a veteran for their service is awkward as well. Not in the least because the gratitude isn’t genuine but rather because it’s too unfocused. It’s hard to thank someone when you truly have no idea what they’ve done. That’s not a flaw of character on the civilian’s part by any means but simply a narrative that I fear goes untold in today’s 24-hour news cycle.
When my military friends and I turn on the news, we relive the moments of violence and fear showcased on B-roll footage of soldiers in combat. I remember the adrenaline-charged feeling of firefights in Kandahar. My power was not in the finger on my rifle’s trigger, but rather the finger on my radio. Just as every good Army platoon leader, I trained vigorously for the decisive moment where I would call for fire upon my enemy. Calling for mortars and aviation fire is the bread and butter of the military profession. My soldiers relished the idea of raining down hell on Taliban positions off in the distance. And when the explosions erupted, they cheered. And I felt like a 24-year-old god holding nothing short of the wrath of the U.S. Army in his hands — just one radio click away.
But behind the scenes where the cameras don’t go, Taliban leaders would bundle their severely wounded teammates into a taxi cab, drive to the front gate of our outpost, kick the bleeding bodies out the door and take off before we could catch them. They expected us to medically treat and save the lives of their wounded fighters.
It breaks my heart to think that when American civilians thank my soldiers for their service in combat they thank them for the assumed bravery under fire. They thank them for putting their lives in danger. But this Veterans’ Day, I’d ask you to thank our soldier’s for something far more valuable and sacred that has truly saved more of our American lives than anything else: their compassion.
I remember one evening after a helicopter engagement that I ordered, two brutally injured Taliban fighters came to our gates. My medic, Specialist Mike Piegaro, a 21-year-old soldier from Florida, began to operate on the most critically wounded. I watched the Afghan’s eyes. He was about my age. He trembled and shivered on the operating table as cold wraps and iodine touched his skin. His gaze at the ceiling seemed to question of God, “How did I get myself into this? I want to go home.” As the fighter’s spasms increased with his anxiety, Specialist Piegaro stopped operating. He took off a glove, grabbed the Afghan’s hand and held tightly. He motioned the interpreter to his side. Mike looked into the Afghan’s eyes — a boy of similar age who just two hours ago had been trying to kill him — and in a calming voice, he said to him, “Relax, brother. Everything is going to be okay. You’re going to be okay.” The young Talib responded more to Mike’s body language than the interpreter’s translation. He leaned his head back, lowered his shoulders and allowed himself to be healed.
I look back on that day affectionately as a humbling moment. Whereas I had felt so proud of myself for engaging my enemy with explosives, Mike had probably done more for Afghanistan and the United States by engaging the enemy with compassion. It was one of my proudest moments as a platoon leader, but the reality is that these sort of events happen every day in Afghanistan and Iraq. Medics and doctors from all services and ranks, spend countless stressful hours on operating tables and aid stations treating Afghan civilians and insurgents.
My good friend, Maj. Raj Shah is an F-16 fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force who, in his free time during his first Iraq tour, donned scrubs to help in the trauma station at Balad Air Base. One night he was assisting in the operating room when the tell-tale thumps of a landing Blackhawk helicopter signaled the arrival of an emergency casualty. Two injured men were quickly wheeled into the tent-covered operating room. One was an American Marine, the other an Iraqi. Raj was asked to assist with the Iraqi, who was being treated for gunshot wound. As he handed scalpels and bags of saline to the surgeons, Raj watched as the doctors across the room frantically worked to save the Marine’s life. Much of the Marine’s leg had been decimated by a roadside bomb. Several hours into the effort, one of the surgeons called out to Raj, “Take a look at this bullet.” He handed Raj an M-16 round he had extracted from the Iraqi and then dropped a bombshell — the Iraqi they were working on was the trigger-man for the bomb that had blown off the Marine’s leg! While the Marine was eventually sent to Walter Reed for recuperation and the Iraqi to the penal system, during their time in the hospital, both equally received the finest medical care our nation could muster. No other fighting force in history has provided such a level of care for its enemies. I shudder to think of the outcome had the roles of fighter and captor been reversed.
As I returned from combat to read nothing but bad press on the failures of our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, a dire fear started to seep under my skin, a fear that our nation will regard both wars as a total loss with no positive impact. I feared that the daily courage of soldiers like Mike Piegaro would go unappreciated through history. Winning this war is about small daily victories, and a 24-hour news cycle fueled on sensationalism will never give credit where credit is due. Say what you will about the grand national strategy of our occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq, but at the end of the day, let us not remember these wars in a simple win-loss context. Let us appreciate the sacrifices shown through benevolence — and the bravery shown through compassion on battlefields and in the operating rooms. They are not gifts deserving of thanks nearly as they are models for how great America can be.