A Soldier’s Dilemma: Should Corporal Thorsen Have Endorsed Ron Paul?

One vet reflects on the meaning of Corporal Jesse Thorsen wearing his politics on his uniformed sleeve

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Brendan Hoffmann / Prime for TIME

Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, left, stands with U.S. Army Corp. Jesse Thorsen during an Iowa caucus rally on Jan. 3.

Regardless of how anyone thought the Iowa caucuses would end on Tuesday night, few expected an active duty Army soldier to walk across Ron Paul’s campaign stage and openly endorse the candidate in uniform. For those who missed it, Corporal Jesse Thorsen was invited to stump for the second runner up in the race. As I watched the nationally televised debacle, my eyes fixated on Thorsen’s Army Combat Uniform pattern blouse, the same one I wore every day in Afghanistan. I stared at his Combat Action Badge asking, “Is this really happening?” There might have been a three way split between the top-tier candidates, but the only unified message coming across social media outlets was of resentment for this soldier. (TIME’s Mark Thompson details why Thorsen violated military regulations) I was among those who felt that way, asserting how disgraceful it was to soil the American military uniform, one of the few icons that is still good in our country.

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When the evening ended, I regained perspective. As one who is deeply fascinated with the veteran psyche, I stayed up nearly all night watching the video clip of the soldier’s remarks in support of Ron Paul. I examined his facial expressions, his arm movements, his jeering, his smile, tattoos and awards. I didn’t see naïveté or an ignorance of military law. I saw a grown man. I saw confidence. He was brash and cavalier. I saw a man who knew exactly what he was doing with little concern for what consequences might come. It’s easy for me to understand that the uniformed endorsement was wrong, but what kept me up till 3am was not appraising what the soldier did. I wanted to know why he did it. What was it about this young man’s military experience that allowed him to feel such little responsibility — or rather, to feel so much privilege — in the uniform he wore?

Immediately, my mind rushed to infamous images of young Vietnam veterans standing in front of Capitol Hill in April 1971, hurling dog tags, valorous awards and medals over the fence in protest of the war they deeply hated. Of course, these men had likely already been discharged from active duty and were free to protest however they pleased. But the fact remains that they discarded symbols of tremendous honor in a vehemently disrespectful fashion. I try to empathize with those vets, but I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to hold those Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts proudly while remembering the death and carnage of a guerilla war and coming home to an American population that was less than thankful for their sacrifice.

Now, I’ll be the first to affirm that today’s Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are far luckier in many ways than our elder brothers and sisters from Vietnam. We are coming home to a nation that is accustomed to separating our service from the cause. We are thanked for our sacrifices or at least not shamed for them. However, the commonality our two generations share is the unequal value that the protectors and benefactors of our democracy each place on its sacred symbols. While many American civilians place tremendous value on the medals awarded to heroes of combat, those Vietnam veterans on Capitol Hill held a remorseful association with those decorations. To the protestors, the value of those medals appeared trivial in comparison to the senselessness of the war they had suffered. I can understand how they feel to some degree. Today, as I sit at my desk, I can look into my coat closet to see the shiny Bronze Star and combat decorations on my dress uniform. I almost feel guilty for having so much pride in wearing those awards because, in reality, they’re just cloth and metal. They don’t do justice to the horror and trauma of combat. My soldiers don’t look at those badges and remember how bravely they fought in Kandahar. How vain am I to have so much pride wearing these decorations, impressing mainly those who weren’t there with me to earn them?

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But in the case of Corporal Thorsen, a similar dynamic is at play. As the twitterverse and blogosphere criticize him for endorsing a presidential candidate in uniform, we must ask ourselves as a society why the uniform means so much to us, yet so little to him? More importantly, if we as a society truly do value the sacredness of the military uniform, what are we doing to show it? Put yourself in Corporal Thorsen’s shoes as he walked along Ron Paul’s podium, and consider this:

If this uniform means so much, why do so many service members take off our uniforms to find ourselves jobless and homeless?

If this uniform means so much, why didn’t you or your child put one on, so that I didn’t have to leave my family for three tours of duty?

I’m not condoning this line of questioning but simply asking our nation to consider this event as a small glimpse into the ramifications of having an all-volunteer Army at war for 10 years. Our veterans are tired and they feel like the world went by without them while they were at war or training for war. We must recognize that, in each of our returning veterans, there is an internal struggle to reconcile the utility of their life’s work over the past decade with the hardships they’ve endured. Our society’s ambivalence gives veterans the prerogative to define their worth of service — and thus the American uniform — on their own terms.

If the American service uniform truly means something to our nation, then we must start taking better care of those who wear it, have worn it and who continue to bear its responsibilities. It’s more than a simple “Thank you for your service.” It means asking, “How can I help you get a job, care for your family, build a life back home?”

I don’t know what consequences are in store for Corporal Thorsen; but deep down, I hope his punishment isn’t too severe. At the end of the day, by simply signing on the dotted line and serving overseas, he has done a great deal for America. Our country won’t gain much by ending his career, as some have advised. Besides, if we set the precedent that endorsing a presidential candidate absolves a soldier from having to go back to Afghanistan, we just might encourage the trend.