Last night at the first Democratic debate, we had an opportunity to see what the potential nominees for the Democratic Party’s presidential candidacy were good for, and what their weak points were. Lincoln Chafee, the former governor of Rhode Island, was immediately outed for his spotty party affiliations and records, and was even grilled by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer later on when he planned on ending his “futile” presidential bid. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton each caught flak for their actions, statements and past voting records, but came out without significant damage. Slow-talking Martin O’Malley had the heat turned up on him for his emotional appeals and lack of serious answers regarding the delicate state of Baltimore due to recent civil unrest. However, former Sen. Jim Webb suffered less for his unique stances and speaking style at the hands of debators than he did later at the hands of social media users.
If you were asleep during the debate or very poor at perceiving the obvious, Webb mentioned his military service as a Marine Corps officer several times, including when he not-so-slyly alluded to the time he killed an enemy combatant that wounded him in Vietnam. Webb’s perceived nonchalance toward his experience in combat and other military mannerisms stuck out like a sore thumb among the generally liberal air on the debate stage, and it set social media websites such as Twitter ablaze with jokes and jab centered around Webb acting out some kind of deranged, off-the-rails Rambo fantasy against the people of Southeast Asia. However, these jokes are not only offensive to veterans, but also couldn’t be farther from the truth.
While such jokes at Webb’s expense are (hopefully) in good fun, there is a deeper issue that begs discussion about the public’s perception of veterans, in particular regarding issues of mental health, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Vietnam-era anti-war sentiments levelled at everyone viewed as complicit in the military-industrial complex, including your average draftee, resulted in a critical lack of attention and care to our veterans, which led to a sense of disenfranchisement from the system among veterans. In addition to the social stigmas against accepting psychological help due to the untested and budding nature of the field, these factors led to servicemembers’ mental health issues running amok, breeding the stereotype of the “crazy” Vietnam veteran.
Today, our veterans are treated with a much higher level of dignity and respect, with improving access to veterans’ health care a major domestic policy concern. Despite a stance of acceptance from both the government and cultural norms, far too often are veterans, especially those involved in combat arms, silently viewed as damaged goods set to explode at any second.
People expect these veterans to be one wrong comment or firework away from being sent into a traumatic episode or flashback full of screaming and violence. If I was still ignorant on the topic of common mental health issues in the community of veterans, I likely would have drank the deadly media Kool-Aid. However, the worst thing you can do to the roughly 22 million veterans and over two million current servicemembers is pigeonhole them into a certain stereotype. Every veteran’s story is different, and treating them with some arbitrary level of tender treatment is a misguided yet unnecessary act.
Regardless of your politics, veterans are some of the most well-trained and disciplined members of society, and should not be stigmatized due to outdated and ridiculously false stereotypes. Webb has served his country bravely on the battlefield and honorably as secretary of the Navy. To crucify him for an out-of-context joke is to diminish not only his service, but his status as a human being. I don’t ask you to kiss the ground veterans walk on, just for common decency.
Sergey is a sophomore majoring in international studies. Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.