We Happy Few: How we see veterans,
 how they see themselves

Shakespeare isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when most people think about American veterans.

If we don’t have family who served, we imagine Hollywood types — homeless, or the crew-cut dad forever disappointed with his kids for their inability to hack it, or those old guys drinking down at the VFW. In recent years, we have added to the list of stereotypes combat burnout cases, ready to snap from a trendy new alphabet of brain injuries and psychiatric disorders, and rabid online commentators.

Actual veterans, however, cannot so easily be shoehorned into the shapes demanded by our preconceptions. By definition, they do have some things in common. Once upon a time, they all raised their right hands and took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” They all put on a uniform and, sometime later, took it off with varying degrees of regret, enthusiasm or ambivalence. Beyond these necessary commonalities we should dump our expectations in the trash. Veterans are straight, white guys from lower- middle-class families in the Midwest and South, but they are also black, gay women from the city. They are NRA Republicans and Black Lives Matter organizers. Veterans are nurses and musicians, truck drivers and authors and bartenders and police officers. They are also Shakespeare-loving cultural anthropologists.

That last is me.

I am a U.S. Army veteran (1982 – 1986) who served in a nuclear missile unit during the Reagan administration. I also have made the study of veteran experience a centerpiece of my life’s work. Given the diversity of veterans, I would never claim to speak for them. But from my dozens of interviews and hundreds of conversations I can throw light on what drives most of them in their post-military lives. It is, in a nutshell, the same set of considerations that drove them to put on the uniform in the first place: economic need, family tradition and a desire to do work that will make a difference.

The first two of these, money and family, while hugely important, can apply to anyone. The desire to serve — and the experience of having served — shapes veterans in enduring ways that even they do not always appreciate at first. Civilian life can seem pointless by comparison, drawing vets into service-oriented lines of work such as policing and social movement activism in all of its immediacy.

Perhaps most of all, veterans seek human connections born of the intensity they learned while serving.

Some find these connections, many don’t.

Shakespeare with Veterans, after performing ‘Julius Caesar’ at Central Park. (photo: Kentucky Shakespeare)

The tribe

“I helped start Shakespeare with Veterans,” said Fred Johnson, a retired Army colonel who grew up in small town Indiana and now lives in Louisville, “to help other veterans.” He often has to explain the group and what it does. “Even to fellow veterans — especially to veterans! — they kind of look at me like I’ve lost it when I tell them I’m doing Shakespeare with other vets.” But many of the participants — men and women who have served in every war going back to Vietnam, in all branches of service, active duty, reserve and national guard, officers and enlisted — routinely describe Thursday Shakespeare night at the Vet Center as the highlight of their week.

Shakespeare with Veterans emerged from a conversation between Johnson and Matt Wallace, producing artistic director of Kentucky Shakespeare. Johnson approached Wallace after a performance of Shakespeare Behind Bars and asked if it would be possible to do something similar with veterans.

“He was enthusiastic,” said Johnson, “so we started raising some money and brought in Amy Attaway, associate artistic director at Kentucky Shakespeare, to be our guide.”

“What we do,” said Attaway, “is get together once a week to read and talk about selected scenes from a Shakespearian play. What happens then is a kind of magic. The vets find bits and pieces of their own stories in the plays and those stories come pouring out. What we do isn’t therapy, but in many cases, it is therapeutic.”

“No writer understands the heart of a veteran better than the Bard,” said Johnson. “We use Shakespeare as a way into our own lives and experiences, and we do it together.”

That element of belonging to something is crucial. “We call ourselves the Tribe,” said Johnson, after some of the regulars went to hear author Sebastian Junger speak about his book of that title, “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.” Junger’s lament is that the contemporary world drives us into isolation, depriving us of connections of the sort that were necessary for survival during the long millennia of human evolution. Few experiences in modern life replicate the survival-driven teamwork, conviviality, and cohabitation of a paleolithic gathering and hunting band. Military service is perhaps the one that comes closest.

Shakespeare with Veterans takes its tagline from Henry V, from the king’s rousing Saint Crispin’s Day speech to his troops: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

It’s not that every veteran feels this call, or seeks out the company of other veterans. Many go on with their lives and think little about their military experiences, or avoid reminders of it.

Some do a bit of both, spending some years post-service getting on with their lives before being drawn to the company of other veterans, toward service beyond their immediate family circle, and to telling stories that many feel they can tell best to other veterans.

To make full disclosure, I count myself one of the happy few, one of those veterans for whom being a veteran is working out pretty well. I credit Shakespeare with Veterans along with activism in Veterans For Peace as crucial to that. For me the “band of brothers” is a real and valuable thing, but I remain keenly aware that civilian life doesn’t work out so well for everyone.

U.S. Navy and Kentucky National Guard veteran Kehontas Rowe.

Systemic militarized racism

On Aug. 8, 2016, 57-year-old Army veteran Darnell Wicker was shot 13 times — or maybe it was 14 — by Louisville police officers in Southwest Louisville. LMPD had been called to the scene when the daughter of Wicker’s long-term girlfriend reported that he was trying to break into her mother’s apartment. Only later was it discovered that he lived there as well. In short, it was a domestic dispute with all of the well-known potential for messy complications.

The facts are difficult to sort, but body camera footage and the testimony of witnesses indicates that Wicker exited the apartment carrying a pruning saw – a tool he used in his business – where the responding officers were waiting, guns drawn. The officers shouted for him to drop his “weapon” and then almost immediately two of the three began to shoot at him. The officers subsequently claimed that they feared for their lives. The Commonwealth’s Attorney eventually ruled the shooting justified.

In many ways, Wicker wasn’t that different from me: an Army veteran in his 50s from a working-class background. Wicker was a black man, and I am white. The scene of his death played out in a neighborhood that is both predominantly black and poor. All three of the responding officers, Brian Smith, Taylor Banks and Beau Gadegaard, were white. Would Wicker be alive today if he were a white man involved in a domestic dispute in an affluent white neighborhood?

Complicating matters, one of the three LMPD officers, Beau Gadegaard, is himself a Marine Corps veteran (2007-2010) who joined the Louisville Metro Police Department in 2014. Police work is attractive to veterans for all of the reasons that attract them to the military, not least of all a desire to make a difference and to be part of a tribe.

The connection between a style of policing that leads to tragedies, such as the death of veteran Darnell Wicker — avoidable in most cases — at the hands of a veteran like Beau Gadegaard, is complicated. Soldiers are trained to see the world in a certain way, in terms of enemies and battlefields. This may be appropriate at war — setting aside the issue of whether the wars we are fighting are justified — but it is surely counterproductive in our neighborhoods.

But that is just my view. Here is another.

‘It’s about an attitude’

Richard Gibbs, a retired LMPD officer and black veteran of the U.S. Army — as it turns out, we both joined up when we were 17, back in the early 1980s — put it this way:

“It’s not about having been in the Army. It’s about an attitude. A police officer thinks he can’t disengage. The way I see it, if I have to disengage to give someone some time to think about it, I’m going to do it. What is the rush? Do we need to escalate just to prove a point?”

“Any police officer who uses the excuse that he was afraid for his life is missing the point. When you sign up for the job, you know you are putting your life on the line, and if you can’t do that, you should get another job. It’s not about what you can do, but about what you should do.”

Gibbs is undoubtedly correct. Our current problems have more to do with officer training, policy and mission. The failures of our system are grotesquely unjust to all involved, and brother veterans Darnell Wicker and Beau Gadegaard were both betrayed by it. It’s just that Wicker was betrayed to his death.

Here is another case:

In early 2012, retired Kentucky National Guard Lt. Col. Blake Settle was threatened with a Taser, forced to the ground, and handcuffed at Mid-City Mall. Settle has PTSD and traumatic brain injury resulting from a suicide bombing attack in Afghanistan. Dressed in his work clothes, he was mistaken for a homeless person who might be intoxicated, panhandling, or both when he didn’t comply with police orders with the speed they felt was appropriate. According to the Brain Injury Association of Kentucky, those suffering from such injuries are seven times as likely than the population average to have difficult encounters with law enforcement. Settle, a 50-year-old white man who had served six tours in Iraq, Jordan and Afghanistan, survived the police encounter. He was menaced rather than shot or choked, and lived to file a lawsuit with hopes of encouraging better training for police. Settle was not homeless but was mistaken for such. The city chose to pay him $50,000.

It is not difficult to imagine how the incident might have been played differently.

Fred Johnson, a retired Army colonel and Shakespeare with Veterans cofounder, speaking to a group of veterans at Humana. (photo by Lisa Huber, Humana)

Betrayal, service

We want our victims to be perfect, to be perfectly deserving of help, and untouched by stigmas of poverty or illness or bad choices. In this sense veterans can be a kind of embarrassment. They have by their profession been touched by violence; they were trained for it, even if they were never required to inflict it.

Some are happy to be thanked for their service.

Others see what they did in the military as a privilege, or have complicated feelings about their experiences.

They are men and women to whom society suspects it owes an open-ended obligation that the government is expected to make good. The government, however, would often rather spend its money on something else.

Despite even that, veterans are often service-oriented people who care about the American project and the ideals of freedom and democracy, even when they are critical.

Kehontas Rowe of Louisville, a 39-year-old  black gay woman and veteran of both the Navy and the Kentucky National Guard, joined the service in 2000 during the era of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In spite of high regard for her colleagues and promotion to sergeant, she left a few years before its repeal under the cumulative burden of living a double life.

“My time in the Navy was amazing. In 2001, 9/11 happened, and I felt proud of what I was doing,” said Rowe.

After leaving the service, Rowe helped to found the Service Women’s Action Network, or SWAN. SWAN worked to win the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and to push the military to admit the prevalence of Military Sexual Trauma and to do things about it.

Rowe said she had been a victim of rape during her time in the Navy.

“It was a turning point for me,” Rowe said, “though I didn’t realize it until later. From then on I worked hard, I excelled, I started exercising more. I moved into doing physical security work, the Navy equivalent of being an MP. I did all of these kinds of things that sexual trauma victims do to regain confidence.”

Rowe’s experience, unique in its details, reflects how veterans suffer — all too often — from betrayals from within the military or the larger society. Despite those betrayals, many continue anyway to improve and heal the military and the larger society. Veterans do service in support of the military, and in opposition to the wars it is called upon to fight. Whatever their politics, they are often drawn to intense situations that replicate life and death stakes, and to the heightened camaraderie of being in the ranks.

Evan Bunch, 30, is a black Army veteran now living in Nashville and helping to organize citizen oversight of police.

“I think of what I do, when I’m helping to plan an action or a campaign, as a mission. I don’t say that out loud, but that’s what I think,” admitted Bunch. “And I have to be careful, because it drives me crazy when things aren’t planned, when people get in each other’s way. Like when we were out at Standing Rock,” referring to the protest action against the Dakota Access Pipeline and in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in late 2016, “there were veterans everywhere, doing security. It was amazing. Did you go?” Bunch asked me.

“No,” I admitted. “I was teaching and thinking about going.”

Nor was I the only one. Iraq War Army veteran Cassie Boblitt — another member of the Shakespeare with Veterans tribe — said at one of our meetings, “It’s just killing me that I’m not out there with the other veterans.”

‘All shapes and backgrounds’

Veteran stereotyping causes sore spots and festering wounds that we try to cover with memorials, expressions of gratitude and a ritual parade. Once a year, maybe twice in smaller towns where there isn’t much going on, we dust off our retired warriors and march them around, wave flags and give them a free breakfast and discounted drinks.

We don’t necessarily listen to them.

One Marine Corps veteran — an indigenous, trans man of color who prefers not to be more precisely identified — said, “Veterans come in all shapes and backgrounds. I think that the idea that we are in ‘new territory’ — it really is absurd. Whether we are talking about trans service, or gay service, or women in combat, it’s nothing that we haven’t done before.”

He was honorably discharged in the early 2000s under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and has every reason to feel betrayed by the politics of service if not the service itself. Nonetheless, he stresses the value of service. Quoting President Reagan, he said “some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. But, the Marines don’t have that problem.”

Regret, no regret

Will Griffin, 32, is a former Army paratrooper who served from 2004 – 2010 and left the service as a sergeant. He currently lives in Georgia and serves on the national board of directors of Veterans For Peace. I contacted him to ask him about his own service and its relation to his anti-war activism. “I had a really good career in the military, multiple deployments, several medals, relatively fast promotion, and if I would’ve stayed in I could’ve had a great career.” Griffin is from a military family — both of his parents served — and was raised to believe in the value of service. In spite of his positive experiences, but unlike the other veterans mentioned above, he has a darker view of what the military means.

“I regret everything about my military service,” he said. “I would never advise someone to join the military, but I would never blame them. I understand the economy sucks, college is expensive, healthcare is almost unattainable, and the military option is pretty much the only option for people to get on their feet. But I just ask them to understand what they’re getting into.”

Carol Rawert-Trainer, past-president of the Veterans For Peace Chapter 168 in Louisville, shares Griffin’s criticism of America’s current wars, the war-orientation of our economy, and how militarized attitudes infect our society and its priorities — but she doesn’t regret her service. A Vietnam-era Air Force veteran and member of the Louisville group Athena’s Sisters (for women veterans), she said about joining the military, “It was one of the smartest things I have done. I met many great people, learned to be independent and responsible, and through the GI bill earned my bachelor’s degree.”

You don’t get to pick your war

As for me, my response lies somewhere between my friends Carol and Will. I don’t regret having served — and acknowledge what I gained from my military experience. I also could not advise someone to join the military, not right now and maybe not at any time, knowing what I know now. When I am asked (and I often am) to talk to someone considering joining, I do not tell them no. I tell them, remember you don’t get to pick your war.

This brings me back to where I started, with my Shakespeare with Veterans tribe. Like vets talking about and performing Shakespeare, the black, LGBT, women and anti-war vets I quoted here may not be who people imagine when they think of “veterans.” I have already shared that I count myself among the happy few, but I want to end with some words from “Henry V” that define for me what it means to be a veteran, even better than the stirring rhetoric of the Saint Crispin’s Day speech.

In Act IV Scene 1, the charismatic young King Henry is camped with his army at Agincourt. He wants to know what his soldiers think of the war they are fighting, so he throws on a disguise and walks among them. Here are the words of one soldier who in a sense speaks for all veterans, even if all veterans don’t agree with him:

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at
such a place…

Veteran experience is shaped by service, past and present, and that service is shaped by the wars we choose to fight abroad and the way we choose to organize our relations to each other at home. How many, I wonder, of the wars we have fought in the 53 years of my life can be described in just accounting as a good cause? •

Steven Gardiner is an Army veteran who served as a Pershing Missile operator in the 1980s. Currently, he is an adjunct professor of cultural anthropology at the UofL, specializing in veteran life experiences.