For lent this year, I am giving up silence.
For a long time I kept quiet about my experiences as a veteran because I thought I had something to loose. I was afraid of burning bridges, but the fact is that you don’t fall as fast or as far as I do unless there was never a bridge in the first place. As an ambitious and career-minded person, I was afraid that standing up too much meant I’d loose what little social clout I had, which I needed to ‘succeed.’ In a dog eat dog world, you can’t bite the hand that feeds you or you’ll get slapped down.
That was the sentiment of another veteran when he heard I filed a formal complaint against Duke, who shared my concern about “hurt[ing] the veteran community” but who seemed more concerned about “tarnishing the university’s perception of veterans.” Here is his Facebook post to Duke veterans, which was later deleted by a group moderator;
This veteran’s privation from the difficulties of other veterans (“I have never experienced discrimination, nor have any veterans I personally know experienced discrimination”) causes him to doubt, and even attempt to discredit, the claims of another veteran who has not had as good an experience.
What if we applied this same standard to other protected populations; what if claims of mistreatment were only legitimate if every other person of said population could attest thereto? Rather it seems that this veteran has the privilege of not having had to face hardships in the way others like him have, and we might wonder what about this veteran’s social location has afforded him the luxury of a morally spotless experience.
But what troubles me most is inherent in the social equation he references, that veterans must maintain a high “perception” of themselves by powerful institutions like Duke. It is not clear to me that students owe anything to Duke other than the tuition they pay, or how veterans owe any more service than that which they’ve already given. What seems more reasonable is that Duke owes students something, and/or veterans something, not the other way around.
The whole “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” line is not a morally neutral metaphor. It makes of the subject being fed a starving animal; only starvation so overwhelms a creature that it might hurt another. I know because we had to euthanize the starving dogs at our Forward Operating Base in Tuz Kharmatu, just north of Tikrit, after one of them bit an infantryman on their way to chow.
The metaphor also falsely valorizes the hand, a hand which accepts no moral criticisms, for clearly it must be benevolent if it is filled with food. But the hand that slaps is not benevolent. Any hand feared, so much that even the mere appearance of flawed perception is a whispered warning among a federally protected population, is no hand of friendship. It is the hand of a master, the hand of a status quo with everything to lose, so it slaps. Or it recedes, taking with it the promise of easy sustenance.
I am giving up silence for lent because I can’t ask other veterans to speak up and risk being ostracized if I won’t take the risk myself. As a noncommissioned officer, I lived by a code, a code which insisted that I never leave anyone behind more hurt than me and that I never ask others to do what I haven’t already done myself.
Until Easter, I will continue to break the silence I’ve held, and the silence that is kept by others, a silence that protects unjust power systems. If one suicide a day is too many, then one veteran being harmed is too many. If just one veteran is suffering because of injustice, then the tide needs to rise and float all boats; it won’t be enough that some veterans take for granted the privilege of a dignified and unremarkable transition to civilian life, not when each and every one of us deserves that same privilege.