We set out mid-morning underneath an azure sky, accompanied by a solitary puff of a cloud perhaps providing relief to some distant beast in the valley down below. That day I was leading a group of fellow engineers and geologists through the manzanita scrub of central Arizona to long forgotten features of a mine whose spoils tarnish the waters, the hills and the valley below. I pushed through the manzanita scrub with a single hiking pole swinging in cadence with each step to alert any nearby snakes. I have been here before I thought, in the dusty roads and wadis of Helmand Province, only now a pole has replaced my Valon and snake gaiters are the only armor I need. I guide our group one step at a time, just like a squad on patrol. I look behind to see the column behind me, unknowing witnesses in the re-creation of many days spent looking for hidden terrors in distant lands. I didn’t lead this group from a position of seniority, it was the result of the pursuit many veterans are familiar with; living up to the legacy of the veterans whose accomplishments did not end with their time in service. The pursuit involves putting to rest any misconceptions about the dysfunctional veteran to your colleagues. It is the pursuit of being competent and above all useful to causes you stand for. Checking the historical map, I wiped the sweat from my face and conferred with my GPS. We all are where we should be.
I stopped our group for lunch underneath a sprawling alligator juniper, where they started talking amongst themselves. I wasn’t feeling hungry or talkative, so I used the time to reflect on the week that had passed so far. While we were out among the manzanita scrub, a forest fire was raging not 100 miles to the south. I thought back to the day before of spending long hours supplying a command post that was hastily being erected on the site of a reservation casino. What a sight to see, supply tents and mess trailers among the pensioners shuffling past us in desideration of endless shrimp and cheap steaks at the buffet after a day of toiling at the slots. Firefighters in long pants, shirts, and face masks going in and out of the building passing by the pool filled with bikini clad women and leathery old men, 100,000 acres burning around them to the beat of the music. A true scene of both fear and loathing.
I went back to thinking about earlier that day and Afghanistan, then to a random book my mom had sent me while overseas about the Revolutionary War. I had been thinking more and more about the smallpox epidemic the Continental Army faced, how this parallels COVID-19 in modern times but how differently the military—and by extension veterans—handled both situations.
George Washington was the orchestrator of the first mandatory inoculation of an army composed of militia men and regulars who were responsible for their families and estates while fighting seasonally for the Army. Those militia men, along with their families, took the risk of being inoculated, (a process that involved wiping fluids from someone already infected from smallpox onto an open wound) to fight for the birth something better. Two percent or so of these men ended up dying due to the milder infection that inoculation brought, but this figure was much smaller than the 30 percent death rate that the general population experienced. Ultimately, infection rates in the Continental Army dropped from 17 percent to 1 percent and, as we know, our nation prevailed. These men experienced financial loss, loss of family members, and endured quarantine among their families for a cause they believed was worth the struggle. COVID-19 has exposed a turning point in the American spirit that was born during those times, it is more convenient to misappropriate the accomplishments of our forebears in order to justify our fallacies than it is to answer to hardship.
We see a superficial version of these ideals being hijacked by the wannabees, weirdos, Karens, sheepdogs, but most shamefully of all, the bro-vets. They take pride in impeding those professionals who are serving their country to their greatest ability; the first responders, scientists, and healthcare workers.
As veterans we tend to project ourselves as the strongest among us, but too many of us buckled in the first months of sacrifice or rather at the suggestion that they simply cover their face with a piece of cloth and maybe you know, stay home more than usual. They rage, cry, and scream at a situation none of us understand. The difference is, they choose to view things none of us can control using just an emotional lens. From their couches they rise, a mix of pristine body armor and relics from a time believed they held a monopoly on service and sacrifice.
Their myopic worldview makes them believe that they alone stand for something they fundamentally misunderstand; that an oath to defend the Constitution is an oath to defend the intangible. Nothing illustrates this more than the fact that they want to return to a world that no longer exists no matter what the short- or long-term loss of life is, as long as they come out ahead and they get the last word. They have forgotten where they came from and what they’ve been through, ignoring the coordination of the rest of the world for our benefit. Now, in a pivotal time in history, they have failed when their selfishness overcomes them, a militia in defense of themselves. Their anguish and the gnashing of their teeth will certainly continue to be heard this winter.
Back in the brush, winter seemed centuries away with the Arizona sun overhead. The rest of the day left no more time for distant thoughts or self-reflection. Mine site after mine site were visited and decisions about how to best remedy each were made. The wind was at our backs as we returned to the vehicles in the same column that afternoon, no legs were bitten by snakes so it was about a good of a day as you could ask for in the field. It was that simple appreciation that made me realize:
As the world burns around you, take it either a step at time with good men and women at your back or curse the skies for not having that little cloud over you. The choice is yours.