Epaulettes and medals aside, respect should be uniform

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A remarkable transformation occurs when men and women don their military uniforms among civilians. They get handshakes and compliments and broad smiles.

In airport lounges, they get free drinks; as they file aboard airplanes, passengers erupt into spontaneous applause.

Of course, it can be quite a different story when they're out of uniform and unrecognizable as heroes. At least on Veterans Day, the luster of recognition is somewhat restored.

"When I'm in uniform, I get a lot of 'Thank you for your service,' " said Lt. Col. Marvin Jones of the D.C. National Guard. "At Union Station, people will almost force you to let them pay for your meal."

In street clothes, it's unlikely that anyone would buy him a bag of fries.

Against a backdrop of so much tragedy involving American troops, a civilian tip of the hat is not likely to bring lasting solace. Concerns about how we protect our soldiers at home and abroad won't be allayed by a pat on the back.

But even the smallest gestures can help.

"When I'm in uniform and I interact with traffic law enforcement, they tend to be more understanding of minor infractions," said D.C. National Guard Lt. Col. Michael Hogue. "I think it's because they also know what it's like to do society's bidding in tough situations. It's actually heartwarming."

Most people would not describe a traffic stop that way. On the other hand, few would complain about a police officer showing compassion toward a combat veteran.

Sgt. Maj. Maurice Blue put it this way: "When the country feels threatened, when men and women are being killed in combat, you feel a sense of togetherness. Civilian and soldier alike want to feel that they are not in this alone."

Jones, Hogue and Blue were among a contingent of military personnel gathered for a Veterans Day observance Tuesday at the University of the District of Columbia. As a sign of respect, there was no campus protest, although many UDC students have expressed opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The reception we get from the public is very different from how it was during the Vietnam War era," said Maj. Gen. Errol R. Schwartz, commander of the D.C. National Guard. "Regardless of what Americans think of the wars we are now fighting, they have rallied unconditionally behind the troops."

Schwartz was dressed in a freshly pressed green uniform adorned with medals, patches and ribbons.

"The uniform really draws attention," Schwartz said. "Without it, people see me as just another person."

There's the rub.

Men and women in uniform are presumed to have advanced the cause of freedom. Buy them a beer. In plainclothes, however, they receive no gratitude for services rendered and hear no sorrow expressed for sacrifices endured.

"When I returned from Iraq, I went to work for civilians who could never understand the stuff I'd gone through," said Don J. Graham, a member of an Army Reserve airborne unit in Riverdale.

"The way I saw it, I had put my life on the line for my country. I thought people would be a bit more patient as I tried to reenter the workforce. Not the case. I had these young supervisors who acted like we weren't even at war, treating me like some temporary entry-level worker and showing me no respect. I went from being a hero to a zero overnight."

So how do we recognize our heroes out of uniform? The fact is, there are many millions of veterans among us. If we salute them on Veterans Day, chances are we have disrespected them in one way or another during those other 364.

We are more likely to tolerate the moodiness of someone who wears a Prisoner of War Medal. If a license plate reads "Purple Heart," we are more likely to give the driver a break when the car is moving too slow.

Otherwise, we quickly lose patience with such people.

Maybe veterans should wear their uniforms all the time.

Or we could just treat everybody with respect.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company