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Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania

Little thanks for vets’ service

During my sophomore year at Northern Illinois University, I knew my life wasn’t going the way I wanted it, so I decided to enlist in the military.

It was June 1973. Although President Nixon announced the Paris Peace Accords with North Vietnam in January, I was pretty sure the war was not going to end as quickly as Nixon needed.

The accords turned out to be another typical Henry Kissinger debacle. As the U.S. wound down support for the South, the Communists ramped up their military invasion.

Nixon was weak, caught up in Watergate and trying to appease the Communist Chinese. He resigned on Aug. 8, 1974.

My draft number was low. I could have avoided military service, but I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. Despite the rhetoric, the recruiters told me I would probably be going to Vietnam, as things were not working out the way Nixon had hoped. It wouldn’t be as bad, they said.

I had every expectation to go to Vietnam and serve at an F-11 Air Force base. That wasn’t to be the case though, and the military shifted me from field medical training to dental training.

But it wasn’t up to me where I would serve. I didn’t have the choice. Lack of choice is exactly what the military is all about. The military decides everything. They decided not to send me overseas.

Two years in, after training and assignment to an F-11 base at Mountain Home, Idaho, I was urged to trade-in remaining time for the Air National Guard. I was assigned to the Peoria National Guard, where I served for 10 more years.

It never occurred to me that there is a class distinction as an active duty member of the U.S. military between those who served overseas and those who did not.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars was only for those patriotic Americans who were dispatched to war zones, whether or not you saw action or sat behind a safe desk.

They gave me a Vietnam era ribbon, and I did get the G.I. Bill I was promised. That helped me return to college to get my life back on track.

I was told I could join the American Legion, the subdomain of the military fraternity, where veterans who served but never left the United States could come together and contemplate how they were “less of a veteran” than those in the VFW who made the 8,000-mile trip across the pacific.

I never joined. There were some issues of racism, too, like being Arab that I encountered during active duty in the National Guard and even from veterans here in the United States. Most came from non-military politicians who wore the distinction but never earned it.

It was politics, driven by anti-Arab animosity from the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the Arab oil boycott. Clearly, like many Americans, the military was on the side of Israel, not the Arabs.

I thought they were supposed to be on the side of Americans.

Membership in the VFW and American Legion is slumping. Most of the members are older. Younger veterans who have a better sense of unity are not joining either organization.

What we need is to merge the VFW and American Legion into one organization that treats all active-duty military exactly the same. We need to take the politics out of the two organizations and end the “honorary” political appointments that give power to government officials who never served but decide the fate of veterans and their benefits.

Despite all the political rhetoric about honoring veterans, the U.S. government does a poor job of caring for us. It’s worse for veterans today than it was when I served. At least I got the G.I. Bill, which basically was about $485 a month to pay for four years of college, but no other real benefits.

If I get sick, I guess I can go to the VA hospital, although I’m not even sure about that.

Like government, the military treats veterans like crap. The politicians exploit us for political gain. Yet, we become the focus of their patriotism. The public looked at us through a political lens. Some like us and some hate us.

It would be nice if we had one organization that fought for us the way we each served to defend this country, rather than have two organizations that honestly are out of touch and are living in the deep, deep past.

I am proud to have served my country honorably. I’m just not so proud of the service.

Check out Ray Hanania’s columns and political podcasts at hanania.com.

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