My husband Brian and I were incredibly honored to be part of the Bob Woodruff Foundation’s 2013 Stand Up For Heroes fundraiser last night. The foundation has raised millions of dollars to support nonprofits that support wounded warriors and their families; this star-studded performance is their signature event. This year included performances by comedians Jon Stewart, Bill Cosby, Jim Gaffigan, Jerry Seinfeld and musicians Roger Waters and Bruce Springsteen.
The entire experience was a special and meaningful one. We got a private tour of the 9/11 Memorial with a group of other wounded warriors and their family members, which was particularly poignant for my husband: he lost two cousins in the attacks and was able to spend a solitary moment commemorating them at the panel on which their names are inscribed. There were receptions and dinners that gave us a chance to get to know other families like our own – including a vet who had the same neurosurgeon as my husband. I got “styled” and Brian got a fresh haircut. Wounded warriors and their family members were honored with great seats for the performance.
But amidst the flurry of activities, I also ended up pondering the much-touted civil-military divide – and the little ways we can chip away at it.
My aunts have told me that during WWII, they used eyeliner to make it appear they were wearing stockings – actual pantyhose were unavailable due to rationing of nylon because of the war effort. In previous conflicts, regular citizens supported the troops in various ways, from buying War Bonds to planting Victory Gardens and collecting peach pits for gas masks (seriously!). After 9/11, however, no shared national sacrifice was called for: the President urged us, instead, to go to Disney World: “take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed;” in the coming years Congress passed tax cuts, unprecedented in wartime.
When I came home from my deployment to Iraq in 2004, the towns around Ft. Campbell (home to the Army’s 101st Airborne Division) clearly knew we’d been gone: every mattress store and Burger King had signs up welcoming us home. But away from military installations, it was easy to forget we were a nation at war – there were no propaganda posters; even the news often relegated casualty updates to the ticker at the bottom of the screen while focusing on the celebrity scandal du jour. When my husband got Purple Heart license plates, people asked him if he was driving his father’s car. Even the Yellow Ribbon magnets that flowered on cars set my teeth slightly on edge: we’ll support the troops as long as it doesn’t risk the paint job on the car. I came to feel that the country didn’t even want to know what our young men and women were doing.
After my memoir came out and I began touring the country speaking about my experiences, however, I saw a very different reality: people cared very much and desperately wanted to contribute, they just didn’t know how. At every speech, someone asked, “What can we do?” They wanted to connect with troops and veterans, they simply hadn’t been asked and didn’t know how.
Since those early days, a plethora of organizations have sprung up, with people from all walks of life seeking ways to contribute based on their own expertise or affinities, from therapists willing to donate counseling to groups who help bring home pets adopted by deployed troops, from artists who help veterans make paper from their uniforms to organizations that let people donate airline miles to wounded warriors and their families.
At the Stand Up For Heroes event, there were numerous instances of these efforts on display. Veterans on Wall Street (VOWS) was a major donor. The Bob Woodruff Foundation supports numerous organizations, like the Farmer Veteran Coalition, that bring together vets and civilians.
Roger Waters performed with wounded warriors from Musicorps – they were astonishingly good! (I was shocked not because they were injured but because they were in the military at all – though I don’t know why my brain had a block on this, since Jimi Hendrix was famously assigned to my old duty station.) Watching Roger Waters on stage with these guys was very moving for me – he called them his friends and seemed to genuinely mean it; they were affectionate and relaxed with one another. I was struck by what an amazing opportunity it was for these veterans to play with a renowned musician – but also what a phenomenal chance it was for a famous guy who could live cloistered from the effects of war to participate in the healing process up close and personal, not hidden behind the veil of simply donating money but sitting intimately with amputees.
Mary Alice Stephenson’s GLAM4GOOD movement provided high-fashion clothes and professional hair and makeup services to the women attendees, both veterans and caregivers. I understand the reluctance by some women veteran’s organizations to fully embrace efforts to beautify women veterans. But I also remember how nervous I felt when I had to start my first post-military job and I truly didn’t know how to dress or do my makeup in age-appropriate professional ways. (And it’s worth noting that organizations donate new suits to male veterans, too – this particular type of transition assistance isn’t limited to female vets.) I was able to get a tiny window into their world, one in which people are willing to spend more on clothes than I can even imagine and are far more bubbly and upbeat than anyone else I know. And I hope they walked away with a slightly richer understanding of who serves in our military today, too.
No one effort can bridge the civil-military divide, and insisting that people do so only in ways that seem appropriate to us is unfair and unrealistic. Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden have formalized efforts to bring communities together to support troops, vets, and families in the Joining Forces initiative. I wish them, and independent efforts, every success. Troops come from – and return to – all walks of life. Americans from all communities can find ways to connect with us, and we with them. The time is right to reach a hand across that divide – chances are you can find someone on the other side.