We hear the words, “thank you for your service” so often these days that they lose meaning. And, of course, for the past year, they have been aimed at our heroic health care heroes. But as Memorial Day is upon us, it is a good time to focus on our veterans. Yes, they are survivors, but they still have to live with the wounds and memories.
And more and more are women. Their percentage in the armed forces is still small, but growing—some 17 percent by now. At a time when many have legitimate cause to disparage our political representatives, Veterans Mikie Sherrill, Jonie Ernst, Chrissy Houlihan, and Elaine Luria are making good trouble in Congress, advocating for those who have served. Former and current First Ladies Michelle Obama and Jill Biden have placed focus on the care and condition of returning veterans. And in the Senate, we have Tammy Duckworth, whose new book, Every Day Is A Gift, has just been published and is a gift in itself.
Duckworth’s first engagement with the military was, she admits, a financial calculation: She enrolled in the Reserve Officers Training Corps while a graduate student at George Washington University, figuring she would save some money. Instead, she found her calling. “By week three, I was officially a goner,” she writes. “I fell for the Army like no one ever fell for the Army before. Nobody cared that I was a poor mixed-race girl.”
I fell for the Army like no one ever fell for the Army before. Nobody cared that I was a poor mixed-race girl.
While we may know the basic biography of Duckworth—the Illinois Army National Guard officer lost both legs and shattered her right arm when her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq in 2004—the full story of her relentless drive is hard to imagine. And, at times, painful to read. (“In a single shattering instant, my body was blown apart. In shock and acting on pure instinct, I tried to fly the helicopter. Unaware that my legs were gone…” )
Her next life was, in fact, just getting started. Beyond the prosthetics (“the flesh tone matched my skin color exactly”) and recovery, (“the medical team gave me every ounce of blood they had on hand”) there was the supportive husband, the activism on behalf of other returning veterans, the unexpected entrance into politics, and oh yes, having two children in her late 40s.
Others Who Serve
Sen. Duckworth remains active in VA issues, but also depends on regular citizens who are heroines as well, trying to help those with serious post-service issues, who are often living on the streets. I recently met one of those citizens in Los Angeles: Marcie Polier Swartz, who founded Village for Vets, which is working valiantly to get them off those streets. Her organization supplies food, social worker liaisons, free mobile dental clinics, and ultimately, it is hoped, low-income housing.
Marcie’s interest-turned passion arose from watching those close to her. “My brother, after serving six years in the Navy during Kosovo and the Gulf War, was discharged with PTSD and an array of mental conditions,” she says. “Together our family and the VA were able to heal him, and our helping hands were the key. All our programs either help vets get to the next level of care or enable them to stay independent once they have earned it.”
“Marcie is the energizer bunny,” says actress Pam Dawber (Mork and Mindy), who has been helping the organization for about five years. Dawber modestly underplays her own role (“I’m just a worker bee”), but she has been extremely helpful in arranging fundraisers and events, and acquiring sleeping bags which turn into warm coats. (By the end of this year, almost 1,000 will be given out.) Those, by the way, were created by a young woman from Detroit named Veronika Scott. She has since formed an organization called The Empowerment Plan. More power to another woman warrior.
The Empathy Wars
“Marcie is the energizer bunny,” says actress Pam Dawber (Mork and Mindy).
Let’s face it, women generally win in the empathy wars, and it can come in unexpected places. In the new biography of Nancy Reagan, one learns that when her husband was governor of California, she rather quietly visited many wounded Vietnam Vets in hospitals. “She got the names of their sweethearts and their mothers and would go home to call them,” writes author Karen Tumulty.
Many sweethearts and mothers have likely become warriors in their own ways. One reason this may be complicated is that veterans themselves don’t always seek, or even want, the help. As Tammy Duckworth writes, there is a “strange notion a lot of veterans share…a feeling that if they accept aid for themselves, they’re somehow taking it away from someone else.”
This Memorial Day is officially a time to remember those who did not survive their service. It’s also a good time to read Duckworth’s inspiring memoir, and to ask ourselves what we can do to make a difference in the lives of those who were willing to risk their own for us all.