DISPATCHES|Rally Around the Flag

08/14/14 | By | More

Am I the only American repulsed by those television ads using our veterans to sell insurance, beer, and who knows what else?

The former feature a parade of actors, from children to white-haired old folks saying “I got mine [insurance policy] at Guadalcanal in 1943,” or “I got mine at Chosin Reservoir in 1950,” or “I got mine at Khe Sanh in 1967.” The idea, see, is that this company’s insurance policies are especially tailored for military personnel and their families, and are passed down like precious heirlooms from generation to generation. In light of the recent revelations about the sub-standard health care veterans have been getting from the VA, and the all-round lack of help for service personnel returned from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, this saccharine Madison Avenue dreck leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth. And that feel-good beer ad, with a whole town turning out to welcome a returning soldier home with a massive tub-thumping parade…. Why doesn’t that beer company put its money where its mouth is, and fund a program to help vets with career counseling, job-searching and the like? (If you want to take a good, hard look at the situation, rent or buy a copy of the documentary, Poster Girl.)

I owe a lot of my current disillusion to my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan – not because of the military, but because of the private contractors who were supposed to be supplementing the troops’ efforts, supporting them logistically and rebuilding the local infrastructure.

I’ll give just one example of the culture of cynicism and corruption pervading the “costs and 3.5 percent” crowd: I spent nine or ten months, 24/7, in Baghdad with the 425th Civil Affairs battalion, op-conned to the 1st Cavalry Division, two of the finest groups of men and women I have ever had the honor to get to know. Our battalion’s interpreters, provided by a big-time private contractor, were first- rate, despite their low pay and the fact that their employers were too cheap to adequately equip them.

It is excruciatingly embarrassing, to be riding in a Humvee or pushing through a hostile crowd clad in Kevlar helmet and Individual Body Armor upgraded with Small Arms Protective Insertplates, toting an M-16 and handgun, next to a diminutive Iraqi woman, a medical student, who was working for us largely because she believed we were helping her country, and had no protective gear at all.

But I digress.

Rumor had it that many units stationed in Iraq distrusted their interpreters, and we in the 425 got to witness the reason for their suspicion firsthand. A colonel we all knew was strolling around Baghdad Airport, where the 425 was headquartered, when he came upon an Iraqi holding a compass that he scrutinized while pacing out the distances between buildings.

When the colonel asked the Iraqi what he was doing, he replied that his compass was “broken” and he was “testing” it. The colonel looked at the man’s I.D., which said he was an interpreter working for the U.S. Army. When the colonel escorted the Iraqi to the office of the contractor who hired interpreters and explained what he had seen, the administrator in charge laughed and said, “Oh, most of our interpreters work for the other side; they’re the only ones willing to be hired. Do the math: we pay these guys $20,000 a year” – I’m ball-parking the figure – “and we charge the Army $250,000 a year.

“Do the math.”

The Iraqi retrieved his I.D. card and left; two nights later, the area where the colonel had encountered him was shelled.


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Category: Commentary, Dispatches, Opinion

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