By VALERIE STUART
President Woodrow Wilson named Nov. 11 Armistice Day in 1919. Although this day of remembrance has been observed for nearly 100 years and now pays tributes to all veterans — not only those who lost their lives — this year Veterans Day feels different to me for several reasons.
First, and foremost, sadly, our country is embroiled in a seemingly endless and acrimonious debate about the federal budget. Pathetically, Congress alternates between sitting on its hands and playing “chicken” with the Affordable Care Act. This kind of political brinkmanship places at risk many of the programs that support many Americans, ranging from programs that train returning veterans so they can reenter the job market and pay their families’ bills to programs that support America’s poor, hungry and most vulnerable. The Americans, who volunteered to protect America and the ideals we stand for, and all Americans deserve an economy that serves them and a government that does what the American people elected them to do: serve their constituents. Jeopardizing our nation’s economic security and tarnishing our nation’s image is no way to honor America’s proud heritage and people.
The debt we owe to those who serve our country is closer to my heart today than ever before because two years ago my daughter Lauren Stuart Mabie joined the military. After training hard during her freshman year at American University in Washington, D.C., Lauren won a full, three-year scholarship. She is now in the Reserve Officer Training Corps program and a member of the Hoya Battalion. The Hoya Battalion is comprised of 120 students from American, Georgetown, Catholic University and George Washington University.
In May of 2015, Lauren will graduate as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army. She plans to go to law school and become a Judge Advocate General or a military attorney. This past summer, she and 440 of America’s best and brightest from all three service branches participated in the Airborne program. After two weeks of training at Fort Benning in Georgia, they jumped out of C 17s and C 130s, five times over the course of three days. They rose at 4:30 in the morning. Then, dressed in full military uniform and strapped into their parachute harnesses, they sat in the “harness shed” for at least eight hours in the sweltering southern heat. While they waited for the planes to arrive, they were not allowed talk, move or fall asleep.
As soon as the aircraft arrived, the 13-squad members in each “chalk” silently boarded. When the planes reached 1,250 feet, the “jump master” anointed group by group the “chalks” that would jump. “Chalk” members then shuffled single file to the front of the plane. Once in front of the door, each “chalk” member looked into the “jump master’s” eyes for the cue. (It is too noisy to hear what is said with the door open and wind and aircraft engine whirling.) Every two to three seconds, a jumper turned toward the door, stepped forward and kicked his or her right leg forward in order to propel himself or herself out of the plane. Four seconds after they were airborne, their parachutes opened automatically. One and a half minutes later, they were back on the ground. They then packed up their gear and jogged a half mile or more back to the hanger with their 35 to 45 pound packs on their backs (weights varied depending on what they were carrying: medical supplies, water filters and firearms).
Ten percent of the participants in the Airborne program were “dropped” for reasons ranging from rule infractions to heat exhaustion. I was the parent Lauren elected to pin on her wings at the graduation. Girl power! Two weeks ago, Lauren put another feather in her military cap when she and 13 other young people at her school (11 men and 3 women) completed the Ranger Challenge, another accomplishment that separates the women from the girls.
For the record, I have been against every war our country has engaged in during my lifetime. When I was a young woman, one of my political mentors and first loves signed up for the Marines. He was on the frontlines during the Vietnam War. I vividly recall him telling me how when a helicopter landed in the jungle to pick up the wounded, the pilot was under orders to leave the most badly wounded there to die so the United States could win the “body count war.” (Publicizing higher death tolls than the other side incurred was a way the United States could rationalize to the American people that we needed to unleash more firepower against the enemy.) Mark told me how he turned to the helicopter pilot, firearm in hand, and told him that he would not leave the jungle alive unless all of his Marine buddies were airlifted out.
When Mark came home some years later, he drove a beat-up car around Virginia and Washington, D.C. It had three words spray-painted on its side: Stop the War. Mark and his brother, Robert, my other political mentor, attended every anti- war rally thereafter. In addition, they worked tirelessly with Mitch Snyder, the well-known advocate for the homeless in our nation’s capital who helped set up homeless shelters all over Washington. Five hundred people from all walks of life attended Mark’s funeral when he died tragically some years thereafter.
I also remember well how I cried as I breast fed my first born baby boy in front of the TV as I watched our ill-advised invasion of Iraq. $1.7 trillion dollars later and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and American lost lives later, the question is was that war worth it? No nuclear weapons of mass destruction were ever found.
In spite of how costly and ill advised, in terms of lives and financial resources the wars in Iraq, Vietnam, and Afghanistan have been, I believe strongly we need to show great our appreciation to the courageous Americans who place our country and what it stands for above themselves. I have great admiration for the fact that they want to lead, serve and make the world a better place. With a mere 1 percent of America’s population now in the military, I wonder if some sort of military service should not be required of all Americans. Maybe if more people had family members or “skin in the game,” Americans might work harder against our government’s proclivity to declare unjust and unwinnable wars. But that is a big national discussion for another day.
In the meantime, Pentagon spending has almost doubled since 2001, skyrocketing to $640 billion a year. And committees in both the House and Senate voted to increase the Pentagon’s budget in Fiscal Year 2014. Such a move could necessitate additional cuts to some of our country’s most essential programs in order to keep overall spending within mandated spending caps dictated by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
As a nation, we are not doing a good job of educating our children, particularly poor children. We also are not creating enough jobs, feeding and housing our poor or taking good care of our most vulnerable citizens, including the elderly, the disabled and the mentally ill.
Clearly, at this time in our nation’s history, instead of wasting American taxpayers’ money on unnecessary weapons systems, we must address the most basic needs of our people. And we must stop the Pentagon from investing in outdated and costly weapons systems, such as the Cold War era nuclear arsenal and superfluous new programs, like the F-35 Strike Fighter Jet. Such weapons programs are rife with fraud and abuse and fueled by contractor greed.
Congress needs to start fighting for economic security for all Americans and to stop siding with special interests and spending billions of dollars on wasteful, outdated and unnecessary programs that don’t make a real contribution to our nation’s security. In many cases, people in the military and the Pentagon itself would like to see such weapons programs eliminated.
As a state legislator, I know all too well the challenge of budgeting in these difficult economic times. The kind of political brinksmanship seen in Congress of late makes state budget writing far more difficult. Rather than focus on political gain, Congress should stop posturing and place the livelihoods and needs of their constituents first. That is what Americans deserve.
In the meantime, I encourage you to work in any way you can to change what has gone wrong with our nation and to help get this beautiful dream we can the United States of America back on track. I believe strongly in the 1960s slogan that if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. So contact your state or federal representatives and share your thoughts. Or roll up your sleeves and work to help those who need it.
Many thanks to all who serve for their belief that America is worth fighting for. I believe strongly in that, too. Now I have to go. The Sunrise Rotary Club is serving dinner at the Overflow Shelter tonight in downtown Brattleboro.
Rep. Valerie Stuart, District 2-1, is a member of the Women Legislators’ Lobby, a program of Women’s Action for New Directions. She is the wife of local attorney John C. Mabie. They are the proud parents of Ian and Lauren Stuart Mabie, who attended Brattleboro public schools start to finish. Ian and Lauren are now in college at Northeastern in Boston, Massachusetts, and American University in Washington, DC.