I never served in the military. One of my brothers was Special Forces and then worked for Homeland Security. My father served stateside before I was born. My uncle was in the first ever Green Beret team in Korea. I’ve been around people who served their country but I wouldn’t pretend to understand what that meant to them. I am an artist and writer and I created this website for Hey, 19 - Country First Challenge. It was my first challenge—all volunteered—and has taken several days. That’s OK. It was worth it.

My brother and I were always different. He is about a year younger than I am and though we grew up together in the same working-class family we have vastly different interests and perspectives on life. I was the one who liked books and art and sports, not him. I never thought twice about college: I went. He never considered it.

Neither of us appreciated our differences as we approached adulthood. We were teenagers and trying to figure out what we were going to do in the world. And like all brothers we clashed—often. One day I jumped on my bike to go down the street. Someone had sloppily attached a generator to the front wheel. I had no idea it was there. As I was riding through the park at the bottom of our neighborhood it came loose and fell into the spokes of the front wheel. The bike abruptly stopped, launching me over the handlebars  and I landed chin-first on the pavement. When I saw what had caused the accident I was furious.

I hunted my brother down in the house and belted him hard in the chest. He flew back into the wall, rasping for air as he fell to the floor. After screaming at him I turned to leave. When I got to the front door I felt a piercing in my side. He had thrown one of his arrows at me and it cut into the soft flesh of my back. My brother was far more resilient and determined than I had imagined. He was gone before I could pull the arrow out and chase after him. Later that night our father beat us half senseless for being the idiots we were. After a while, we just shrugged our shoulders over it.

The day my brother told me he was joining the Army I was speechless, not because it was a decision beyond comprehension for me, but for another important reason. We were both scrawny teenagers—think of Steve Rogers, Captain America, before his transformation. In fact, that’s a great image because when my brother came home two years later he had gone from five feet nine inches tall and maybe 140 pounds, to six feet two, 195. He literally grew up in the military and had become Captain America.

He had also excelled in the military. A General had invited him to try out for Special Forces. Of the 185 people invited to tryout, he was one of three who qualified. But it was costly to him. The very last part of the trial he was literally dying of heat stroke, but he wouldn’t quit. Less than fifty yards from the finish, the doctors and General who watched over the procedures forced him to stop and told him he had passed. It was the only way they could get him to quit.

Serving your country in Special Forces is different from most military jobs. Every mission has the potential to end badly. Training is hard and also dangerous. Things can seem larger than life. We met several times over the years in tiny towns in the middle of nowhere when we both happened to be traveling. We drove an hour or more out of our way to meet up. Once, I drove from Washington DC, where I was working, to North Carolina for a weekend to hang out and see how life was for him. I heard some crazy stories and adventures that were on par with the best thriller movies or books.

After Desert Storm we met in a small town in Kentucky. I realized afterward just how proud I was of my brother and the person he had become. In fact, over the years I have told parts of his story many times to people I’ve met and I always felt a great sense of pride doing so.

But not all of the story was pretty. After 911 we made a lot of mistakes as a country. The worst of which we are still paying for, and my brother paid a heavy toll for those bad decisions. It made me actually think about what patriotism is. My views haven’t changed over time and they run counter to what many believe, and to what we see in everyday life in America. While those in the military display their patriotism daily through their service, it is the duty of the rest of us—the civilian population—to vigilantly guard over them against exploitation by those with false motives and self-interests that run counter to the troops’ well-being. We let them down after 911. In our zeal to bring someone—anyone—to justice, we allowed a group of politicians to lie about the reasons for war and put one of our most valuable resources, the men and women who serve, into harm’s way. We knew there were no WMDs in Iraq and we knew that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 911. But we turned a blind eye to the truth. And because of our unwillingness to see that truth we have needlessly lost thousands of men and women in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

As much as I’d like to blame the politicians who fabricated the reasons for war, I can’t. We knew the truth. All of us did. We didn’t do enough then and we haven’t held them responsible since. Patriotism, like freedom, comes with a price, and part of the price is vigilance. Wearing a flag on your lapel, or sporting a flag t-shirt, or displaying Old Glory outside your home doesn’t make you a patriot, especially when you allow the country to go to war over false pretenses. Patriotism requires character to accompany that love of country. And the hardest act of character is to stand up and say ‘no’ when all around you are foaming-at-the-mouth mad and intent on doing something wrong.

My brother, and others, paid a heavy price for our civil inaction, our lack of vigilance. He had lost two teammates on back to back missions and he needed back surgery but the Bush administration said, no, you have to go back out. They needed him in Iraq. In Iraq he twice met up with an IED. Today, he has a kevlar hip and a replaced knee. More importantly, he suffers from PTSD and like many veterans he doesn’t get the care he needs.

His quality of life today is drastically different from what it was, but he seems to be coping. It’s difficult to say with certainty, but that same resilience he displayed as a teenager is helping. He rarely speaks to anyone in the family and he normally keeps to a very small group of friends. We never talked a lot before, but we always knew what the other was up to. These days I will occasionally see a post on Facebook or hear from someone who has run into him. But the news is always spotty.

My fourth novel—Purple Hearted Man—was the story of a homeless war vet who suffered from PTSD and a psychotic break. At the time I wrote it I never considered that my brother’s situation was part of the motivation to write the book, but it must have played some part. One of the main themes of the novel is the invisibility of the homeless, which also applies to our vets who have struggled after wars and conflict abroad. We’ve ignored them, looked through or around them. We’ve talked a big game about what “heroes” they are for their service. But our deeds have failed our ideals, drastically, and our words have become hollow weapons that exacerbate their problems. When we underfund (chronically) the VA the message is clear. Your service, we tell veterans through our actions, is only good if you come home whole and ready to produce economically. That’s the opposite of patriotism. It’s also bad community.

Everyone should understand one important fact: My brother’s story wasn’t unique. But because it wasn’t unique doesn’t mean it is any less tragic, or less wrong on our part. Nor was the plight of thousands of other vets less tragic because their story is so common. It’s on us to change those things, and always has been. It’s not difficult. We just have to care for those we have sent off to fight our wars. We have to understand we are one community and that we owe them a severe debt. A part of honoring that debt is to think long and hard about the costs of sending them off to fight under any circumstance, but especially those that are dubious, at best.

If you’re in Virginia or one of the Carolinas and you run into a big mountain of a man wearing flannel who likes to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon, who is ex-military and asks you to call him Wahoo, tell him his older brother said hello. And thank him—and the others like him—for their sacrifice.

On the web: Jack McDaniel

From the category Military