Today is our 4,202nd day in Afghanistan.
We'll start this morning as we always do; with the latest casualties from our ongoing war, courtesy of antiwar.com:
US Military Deaths - Afghanistan: 2,192
Other Military Deaths - Afghanistan: 1,081
We find this morning's cost of war
passing through: $ 1, 441, 215, 850, 000 .00
Let's talk about honor and dishonor today. These are often curious things. As a society, we've set standards for ourselves surrounding these two things. We tend to think that soldiers are automatically "honorable" simply by virtue of the uniform, but unfortunately this is often not the case.
Like you and me, soldiers are mortal men and women, with all the fragilities and uncertainties that are always present in the human race. I think the disconnect is where some soldiers have the internal mechanism to look at a thing and declare it wrong, and to "do the right thing", where others do horrible and hateful things. Whether or not it's a "coping mechanism", as their lawyer insists
, I have to wonder at any soldier, indeed any human being, that could look upon a dead fellow-creature, enemy or not, and decide that it's OK to urinate on the corpse?
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — The defense attorney for a sergeant facing punishment for his role in the incident in which Marines filmed themselves urinating on Taliban corpses called the action “black humor,” likening it to jokes police officers might make after seeing a horrific crime scene.
The Marines’ decision to urinate on the corpses was in poor taste, said retired Lt. Col. Guy Womack, but not desecration. In fact, it was more a coping mechanism, he said.
Sgt. Robert Richards, who served as a team leader of the sniper platoon with 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, during their 2011 deployment to Afghanistan, did not testify during his Article 32 hearing on Tuesday and declined to provide a statement. He was one of four Marines shown urinating on enemy fighters in a 39-second video that surfaced online Jan. 10, 2012. The video was filmed during a counterinsurgency operation near Sandala in Helmand province on July 27, 2011.
A platoon sergeant with 3/2, Sgt. Edward Deptola, who was reduced in rank from staff sergeant following a court-martial here in January, was called by the prosecution as a witness in the case. When asked why the scout snipers urinated on the corpses, he said killing them just wasn’t enough.
“Not for what they had done to us for the past 10 years, and what all terrorists have done to us in the past 30 years,” he said.
Several more videos were shown during Richards’ hearing, including one in which he threw a grenade over a 10-foot wall and another in which he rode on top of a tank with the three bodies on which he’d urinated earlier.
At one point, Richards can be heard on a video telling his Marines that “for the next five minutes, every military age male south is hostile.” The battalion commander on the deployment, Lt. Col. Christopher Dixon, now with 2nd Marine Division, said during his testimony that he questions whether someone at his rank could make such a declaration, let alone a sergeant.
Also discussed during the hearing was an interpreter firing a weapon while under no clear immediate threat, something Maj. Michael Libretto, one of the prosecutors in the case, said Richards should have stopped as team leader on that patrol.
But indeed, for every bad apple, there's an entire bushel of good ones to make up for it. At least I can still be heartened that no matter how horrific the ugly stories of war can be, there are at least as many stories of honor and sacrifice. Of course, it's the media that often skews things; after all, soldiers doing the right thing doesn't necessarily drive ratings.
When an old soldier dies, at the family's choice, they are entitled to a funeral with military honors. My own dear great-uncle was buried with a Coast Guard honor guard and bugler last June when he went to join his shipmates. But thanks to the increasing pace of veteran's deaths, and coupled with budget cutbacks and now the sequester....there isn't enough money to go around to pay for these things. You may have heard about Bugles Across America
, but they're just the tip of the iceberg.
All across these United States, there are small, but loyal, corps of volunteers that make sure any family that wants a military honor guard can have one.
With little of the solemnity of the real thing but with all the seriousness, a handful of soldiers and a group of Minneapolis cops practiced in an isolated corner of Fort Snelling National Cemetery on a recent morning. They removed a flag-draped wooden casket from a hearse, and marched it to a pavilion. They folded the flag into a perfect triangle (nothing but the field of blue and the white stars showing).
Over and over again, they presented the folded flag to a make-believe spouse sitting next to a casket with no one in it.
There were no tears and no mourners. No one would be buried. The cops were in their civilian clothes. The soldiers were wearing their informal battle dress uniforms. But the drill had its purpose: to train for a coordinated and dignified presentation for what has turned into a growth industry: military honor guard funerals.
About 4,800 Minnesota veterans are expected to want funerals with military honor guards this year, up by more than 400 from last year. That number is only expected to rise in the coming years as demographic realities hit. The average age of Korean and World War II veterans is above 70, and there are approximately 140,000 Vietnam-era veterans in Minnesota alone.
Despite the steady rise in demand, money for honor guards from veteran service organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars has been sporadically allocated in the past from the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. State funding was eliminated in 2009 when state budgets were tightened. Federal funding for an Minnesota Army National Guard team has also been cut as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down. The Minnesota Guard laid off seven soldiers from its honor guard squads this year.
This year, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed $400,000 in his budget over the next two years to provide stable funding for the veteran organizations' honor guards. It's hoped the greater attention to training and the added funding will attract a younger group of veterans to perform the ceremonies.
"We just want to be able to say, 'If you have the time, we will help you with the training and help reimburse some of your expenses -- and that can be your way as a veteran to give back to all veterans,'?" said Minnesota VA Commissioner Larry Shellito.
Dayton's proposal has proceeded with little debate. The provision is part of a $124.6 million budget request for the state VA that is scheduled for a key legislative committee hearing this week.
I think this may be another casualty of our war-based society. When war is a rare and unusual thing, it's much easier to find honor and nobility. When it's an everyday occurrence, and has been for now almost a generation, it's easy to get complacent, and indeed blase about the entire thing. I try my hardest to teach young men what some of these things mean, but I fear we may be losing what has become a battle of attrition.