We set aside one day a year for family, feasting, and football. The carbo loading fuels a shopping frenzy on the day following. The evolution of Thanksgiving from Puritans setting aside time to thank and praise God for his providence to fistfights over big screen televisions at Wal-Mart has been a long strange journey. This year it got even stranger.
Many of us will be separated from loved ones. We fear the disease or we fear what the disease is doing to us. Suffering economic uncertainty during the holidays brings a poignant angst that can be the deepest type of sorrow. So often in times like these, we have looked to country as a source of pride and comfort. This year our fractures run deep enough that it is hard to see that “God has shed his grace on thee…” The joke on millions of Zoom calls substituting for a real Thanksgiving will be that the only thing to give thanks for in 2020 is that it is almost over.
Once a week I write about politics or the law from an Empty Nester perspective. This week, I could not bring myself to write one more word about the election, COVID, racism, climate change or economic insecurity. The thought of it exhausts me. Not this week of all weeks.
As we age, we should be examples of wisdom. The best piece of wisdom is the simplest: “It is going to be okay.” I likely feel that way because neither my grandparents nor my parents ever exhibited the doubt I feel inside about the legacy we are leaving our children. Whether their confidence was real or well acted, I am not sure. When we gathered around the Thanksgiving table, I know I could feel that strength in our small circle. I also know I am struggling to present the same strength to my children.
We were born, or came of age, during Vietnam. The malaise of the 1970s threatened us. The Cold War consumed our foreign policy. After we vanquished that foe, a stranger, more intimate danger revealed itself on 9/11. We watched Martin Luther King, Jr. die and now wonder whether his life was in vain. Our shared experience includes gas lines, stagflation, hanging chads and a mortgage recession. Through it all, most of us maintained a firm belief in American exceptionalism, despite the calamity of the moment. Today’s multiple calamities feel different and more foreboding.
So I looked hard for something to be thankful for in 2020. Not a platitude or something so singular it could not be widely shared. Instead, I wanted a honest-to-goodness chunk of optimism that might nourish my soul and others. The answer should have been obvious, but you always find valuable things in the the last place you look. After hours flipping over metaphorical couch cushions like I had lost my keys, I found it hidden under stories about election officials, mail-in ballots, and positivity rates. I often lose my keys and the feeling of calm one gets when setting eyes on them again is palpable. I breathed the same sigh of relief today.
Within months, we will be at peace. After 19 years, our nation’s military will be alert, vigilant, and ready. It will not be regularly carrying out offensive operations that put our youth at risk of death or dismemberment. At the Thanksgiving table I can give thanks for that small miracle.
It started as a war to rid ourselves of Al-Qaeda, equal parts retribution and future security. We looked in vain for weapons of mass destruction. To get to Al-Qaeda we had to go through the Taliban. After Al-Qaeda waned, ISIS rose. Hussein was gone, but his departure created a vacuum that monsters from Iran and Syria rushed to fill. Bin Laden finally met his end; the result offered no victory. We crashed repeatedly against the deserts and the mountains of history, having failed to heed their lesson. If you have no exit strategy, you cannot exit. For 19 consecutive years, our Thanksgiving day prayers included the men or women far from home and in harm’s way.
At some point all of that ceased to be front page news anywhere other than in small-town newspapers reporting on the funeral parades for a local hero. Many Empty Nesters protested the war in Southeast Asia and I am sure their opposition was heartfelt. To be honest, however, we should recognize that those protesters did not want to go to Vietnam themselves.
That “me or thee” problem does not exist today because we have an all- volunteer Army. The lack of sustained protest is no coincidence. Instead of protests we have accepted the presence of a warrior class to do our dirty work for us. And dirty work it is.
As of 2018, 2,770,000 men and women had been deployed to Iran or Afghanistan on a total of 5,400,000 individual deployments of 30 days or more. More than 225,000 of those men and women served at least three deployments. Those numbers are staggering, but what cannot be counted are the millions of lonely nights lovers felt oceans apart, dreading a phone call from the chaplain and praying for a call from their soulmate. The countless steps missed; be it a toddler’s first, a child racing the base paths in a little league game, or a young adult striding towards a diploma. The empty place setting at Thanksgiving dinner represents a strain on the warrior’s family that most of us never know.
We can look up the fact that nearly 7,000 men and women did not get the hug at the airport because they returned in flag-draped coffins. Another 52,000 veterans celebrated Thanksgivings or other holidays in the hospital. Their bones are shattered, their ears are incessantly ringing, and their skin is screaming. In the few pain-free moments when they are lucid, these soldiers just pray for one more minute of relief.
All of that is terrible, but the true cost of our adventures takes its toll in the minds of those who come back. In any given year, between 10%-20% of those who served in the Middle East theater will experience some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Using a median figure, that means 400,000 men and women in a subway station, short of breath, eyes darting around, looking furiously and in vain for an enemy that would kill them.
Many of our strongest-the people who could take the physical and mental abuse of boot camp and specialized warfare schools, deal with harsh terrain, overcome desperate enemies and conquer physical scars-cannot survive this last danger. Between 2008 and 2017, over 6,000 veterans a year took their own lives. Sixteen heroes a day with so much pain that the only way out they see is at the end of their gun or in a pile of pills.
We baby boomers are only now grudgingly releasing our hold on the levers of power. This is the society we built; we need to claim responsibility for the good and the bad. In many ways our world is miraculous. Mankind has progressed in terms of comfort, security and, even if it is hard to see, in equity. Justly celebrate that progress. In America, however, we have a system in which we contract out the horrors I just described. We need to own that fact also.
There is some controversy over whether our abrupt draw down to minimal force levels is politically driven and is in the long-term national security interest. I understand the arguments. I just do not care. After 19 years, those in charge of strategy owe it to those who have faithfully implemented that strategy to just end it. I am glad that this Thanksgiving, families will have their loved ones or be that much closer to the end of their worry..
In the early morning hours of October 22, 2015, M.Sgt. Joshua Wheeler’s elite unit rolled out in support of Kurdish forces attempting to liberate an ISIS prison in Iraq’s Kirkuk province. Solid intelligence indicated that ISIS was preparing another mass execution. That intelligence included the fact that the prisoners were digging their graves.
Joshua Wheeler grew up poor in rural Oklahoma. He chose the Army over the oilfield. His nineteen-year career to that point marked a man who excelled at his duties. A man who never shied from awesome responsibility. That fact did not surprise the people who knew Joshua best. He was the oldest of five siblings with an absent father and a troubled mother. As a teenager he was the actual parent in the house. Tough on his brothers, yet able to braid his sister’s ponytails, Joshua became their idol. As hard as life was when he was young, Joshua loved children. He had four of them of his own, including an infant son.
Wheeler’s unit was in a pure support role that morning. Nation building means watching people lacking the United States’ resources and training, attempting to do what could be accomplished more easily by you and your buddies. Despite the inefficiency, Wheeler and the small group of Americans hoped to teach the Kurds how an elite unit can work; to pass on the comradery that exists from every soldier doing their job. The urgency of the situation called for clockwork precision. Whether that existed on the ground was the big unknown.
The mission ended successfully. Over 70 prisoners avoided a death that would have been seen by millions of times on the internet in a ghoulish propaganda video. Dozens of families would reunite. The Kurds took ISIS prisoners and killed other militants. It was not quite clockwork, however.
At one point after the Kurds breached the prison wall, they began taking heavy small arms fire that put the mission in jeopardy. A man who never ran from responsibility ran towards the gunfire. In doing so, Joshua Wheeler became the first American service member to die at ISIS’ hand and the first killed-in- action statistic in Iraq in four years. Wheeler’s death signaled another escalation of a war we could not exit.
I do not know how Joshua Wheeler felt about Thanksgiving. He was a proud citizen of the Cherokee nation, so it would have been natural for him to harbor conflicted feelings. Something tells me that Wheeler’s heritage did not interfere with his celebration of the American holiday because on the morning of October 22, 2015, Joshua Wheeler was serving his 14th deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Thursday, I will whisper a Thanksgiving for Joshua Wheeler and those who served with him. Mostly, I will be thankful that after 19 years we are saying that the next Joshua Wheeler is worth saving. It is something.