At the ballet in Manassas on Sunday afternoon, there was the usual arts crowd, programs in laps, ready for a performance that would help them understand boot camp, deployment and IEDs. And there was a small group of Marines, a little uncomfortable in their suits, ready to watch the story of their lives told onstage through incomprehensible grand jeté, fouetté en tournant and chassé.
Two worlds, so different.
The ballet was a tribute to a former dancer, Colin Wolfe, who confounded his artsy family by becoming a Marine, then devastated them when he was killed in 2006. He was 19 years old.
Most of the Marines who came to the show served with Wolfe in Iraq. They were there to pay their respects to him and his mother, Amy Wolfe, artistic director of the Manassas Ballet Theatre, and to try to understand that part of the other 99 percent of America is trying to understand them.
The truth is, many of us lack a personal connection to the 2.6 million Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They represent less than 1 percent of the American population. We don’t know any more about their lives than the Marines reading their programs knew about ballet.
Why did they join? Ask five Marines, you’ll get five different answers. They joined because their fathers served, because they like to shoot guns, because they got laid off, because they want money for college, because they were, like Colin, inspired to service by the attacks of 9/11.
More than 6,800 of our men and women have died in those wars. And too many others have come back broken, injured and unable to integrate back into society.
For the other 99 percent, Veterans Day is a day off work, a department store sale, a big Concert for Valor on the Mall. Woo hoo! Bruce Springsteen! Thank you for your service!
It’s not really that for the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. While they are proud of their service, many are feeling something other than celebratory on 11/11.
In a poll The Washington Post conducted with the Kaiser Family Foundation earlier this year, most veterans said their health is worse now than when they deployed. Nearly a quarter of the women who served in these wars said they had been sexually assaulted during their service. More than half of the veterans polled said they know another veteran who has tried to commit suicide, and 20 percent said they know a veteran who is homeless.
Many reported that the adjustment back to civilian life has been rough, their health care needs aren’t being met, and less than half believe the other 99 percent of Americans appreciate their service.
The unemployment rate for these post-9/11 veterans was at 7. 2 percent last month, higher than the nation’s overall 5.8 percent unemployment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
No department store sale or yellow-ribbon car magnet is going to fix this.
There is a huge disconnect between the way veterans and the rest of the American public perceive the wars they fought.
According to that Post-Kaiser poll, 53 percent of veterans said the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting vs. 30 percent of Americans overall. And 44 percent said they thought Iraq was worth fighting vs. 38 percent of the general public.
Amy Wolfe, who created the ballet to honor her son, said she had no understanding of what military families go through before Colin joined the Marines. For her and husband, Mark, Parris Island was more foreign than Paris.
“We’re not a military family,” she said. “No one in our family served; it just wasn’t part of our world. We just lived in this little bubble.”
With the ballet, she tried to burst that bubble for the arts crowd. By telling the story of one Marine, she said, we can begin to understand the huge loss endured by so many more.
On Veterans Day, all of us need to burst some bubbles, to do something outside our civilian comfort zone.
There are dozens of ways to volunteer with the Wounded Warrior Project, the Disabled American Veterans or the Coalition for Iraq + Afghanistan Veterans. When it opens in Washington, welcome the homeless vets who will be moving into the fancy new building on North Capitol Street in NoMa, which had its groundbreaking on Monday.
Write letters to your lawmakers about getting better treatment and training for our veterans. Do something more meaningful than serving up a “thank you.” Our warriors deserve better. They deserve our understanding and our unwavering support.