Gerald Winegrad: We must heal our fractured democracy, or see it perish | COMMENTARY – Capital Gazette
The poignant columns in the Capital on Veterans Day featuring local combat veterans aroused many of my emotions regarding service to our country and patriotism, as well as my fears concerning our current political climate.
The first column was about a gunner on a WW II B-24 (called a Flying Coffin) who flew 50 combat missions in Europe. This brought back memories of my dad, who served in the Navy on a destroyer escorting Merchant Marine supply ships on the dangerous run to Murmansk to break Hitler’s back in Russia.
The second was about 76-year-old Horace “Sarge” Nutter, who served two combat tours in Vietnam. A Marine infantryman, he was wounded and saw many of his fellow Marines die. Yet when he returned, this African American veteran was shocked at the way Vietnam vets were treated and how he and others struggled to get jobs due to the stigma of this unpopular war. He eventually stayed in the service and is struck by the cultural transformation in the way veterans are treated: ”Now it’s ‘Thank you for your service.’ “
Sarge’s story struck a chord as I had experienced some of this condemnation during my service as a naval officer during the Vietnam War. I was not in combat as I served as a JAG, a Navy lawyer. As a freshly minted lieutenant in 1970, I was riding back to my apartment in Newport in my khaki uniform and my $300 used Nash convertible. A long-haired hippie came out of a bar and spat at me. I felt insulted for my dad and myself, having served our country in uniform, and I was going to go after the miscreant but decided it would not be best for me or the Navy.
There were other similar occurrences in which disdain for an unpopular war was directed at me while in uniform by the use of profane gestures.
The most heart-tugging story was written by an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and saw his best buddy and other fellow soldiers die. He wrote of the indifference he feels from others about what it meant to serve in battle in this far off country in a highly politicized war. He pointed out that people know or care so little about this war and that he feels isolated.
I empathize with these vets, having personally experienced contempt while in uniform. I do not want or need any recognition or special treatment or benefits from four years on active duty and nine years in the reserves other than to be buried in the Crownsville Veterans Cemetery with my dad and mom. I am puzzled over the perfunctory “Thank you for your service,” or being asked to stand at public events because I’m a veteran. When I tell a clerk who offers a “thank you” that I served during the Vietnam War I get the same response as the two previous vets mentioned.
While I am proud of my military service, it does not make me any better than the millions of people who serve our country in everyday life, including teachers, nurses, doctors, clergy, police officers, social workers and caregivers, and treatment specialists for the sick, addicted, elderly, and developmentally disabled. There are many other “givers” who do heroic work for the disadvantaged.
I believe we all should serve our country in some way to give back to others for the many blessings and freedoms we share in this nation. After serving in the military, I chose to be an advocate for environmental justice with NGOs, or nongovernment organizations, and by holding public office and teaching graduate students. I exchanged my military uniform for a suit and tie, the uniform of an environmental attorney and state senator.
The hard-edge changes I sought and still seek brought contempt and attacks by opponents and still do. Since beginning with the National Wildlife Federation in 1969 until now, I have experienced this backlash and the personal attacks of those trying to undermine justice. But I will forever remain an environmental warrior.
I am deeply worried about our nation and the attacks on our democracy. The political and moral silos into which Americans have embedded themselves are reflected in our political system and an ugly “ us versus them” mentality. Racism is openly on display, with white supremacists and neo-Nazis attacking synagogues, Black churches, Muslims, and other minorities.
These divides were inflamed by a sitting president who still refuses to accept defeat in a free and fair election, which he lost decisively by more than seven million votes. All 64 lawsuits brought by Donald Trump and his allies failed because all judges rejected allegations of voter fraud. Recounts also failed to find any but very minor shifts in votes.
And yet Trump rallied supporters to “Stop The Steal,” resulting in a riot and invasion by domestic terrorists of the seat of our democracy, the United States Capitol. Jan. 6, 2021, is a date that will live in infamy, perhaps more than any other. Congress was temporarily blocked from meeting that day, the vice president and members of Congress were threatened, and 140 law enforcement officers were viciously attacked and suffered cracked spinal discs and ribs, concussions, and stab wounds. Four officers subsequently committed suicide. Damage to our nation’s capital reached $30 million.
With no evidence to support Trump’s “Big Lie,” an unbelievable 36% of Americans still say that President Biden did not legitimately win the presidency. Does truth matter anymore in this country? A Jewish Marine combat veteran told me, “Now I know how Hitler rose to power.”
It is no surprise that 56% of Americans believe democracy is under attack and I am one of them. It seems the wheels are coming off and I firmly believe this is the most dangerous time in my lifetime, except when I was an infant and WW II was raging with Hitler in power.
What we are now experiencing is not what veterans served and fought for. It is certainly not what I served for. Our nation was founded under this credo: E Pluribus Unum, “Out of many, one.” Our many races, nationalities, religions, and political beliefs are at the core of our democracy and the American ideal. We must heal the fractures that threaten our democracy or see our democracy perish.