Thursday, November 10, 2011

Veterans Day 2011: Former Marine combat officer Ilario Pantano saddened by renegotiation of veterans' benefits.

From an interview by Verne Strickland with combat veteran Ilario Pantano

Veterans Day is a very hard day for me, as is Memorial Day, or any day when I’m reflecting on service with sacrifice. I’m not thinking about myself but I am thinking about my men and I’m thinking about some of the men who are not with us anymore. That’s always very hard for me, and very somber. 

Veterans Day 2011 is a decade after the beginning of what we know now as the War on Terror. There’s one person who stands out to me, and I think you’ll be writing about in the near future – Michael Spann. In the days after 9/11 I remember watching the TV and breathlessly waiting for news about what we were going to do with this Taliban deal in Afghanistan, and I recall seeing this face of a clean-cut young gentleman who had been a former Marine officer who later was a CIA Special Operations officer, and I was thinking, here was the first American killed in the War on Terror in the search for bin Laden.
Marine Lieutenant Ilario Pantano with Staff Sergeant Jason Glew, his senior
NCO in Al Anbar

I remember how that affected me, and how it pulled a trigger for me, like I needed to do more. And I was already committed to going back into the Marines and getting back into the fight. Do you know that today people talk about the one percent and the ninety-nine percent? I’m part of the .045 percent –- less than half a percent is the percent of our population that served in some capacity in the War on Terror over the last ten years. That is quite a burden. I think that maybe there was one member of Congress who actually had a son who was in the War on Terror.

I feel that increasingly we have moved away from a society that understands and fully shares the sacrifice. We are quick to give a lot of lip service to the guys and gals in uniform, buy them a free lunch and all of these things. But the bad news is that we are a little bit disconnected from the real cost and the real sacrifices. That’s going to have consequences for us during the next ten, twenty or thirty years. 

My concern is what it’s going to be within our electoral leadership, and in our communities. There are so many things that you know, Verne – consider the wonderful friendship that you shared with me through a dear friend of yours, a pillar of the community, high achiever and a man of strong faith, Mr. Ray McCauley of Wilmington, and by the way he had been a veteran in a foreign war. He chose to take his experiences and make the best of them and make them a force for good in his community, and this is played out in many towns and cities across America.

 But, following up on the percentage of Americans involved in wars we have fought – in the Second World War it was eleven percent, in Viet Nam it was nine percent, then in more recent history, as I said, it was less than half a percent only in this fight in the War on Terror. So if we then raise a warrior class that is populated by such a small percentage of our citizens, it becomes much easier to marginalize things like the promise we made to veterans about their benefits, for example. 

As citizens and taxpayers, we have some measure of obligation to try and help and assist when they need it and provide care when they’re down. But a veteran makes a promise to you and me and all Americans, and what that veteran says is he is willing to serve even to the extent of sacrifice of his life and these are the conditions under which he agrees to make the trade. 

Often what he is getting is next to nothing, it’s low pay, it’s uniform allowance, and a couple of hot meals. But sometimes folks make a decision that they’re going to go and stay in and retire and miss a lot of Christmases and a lot of birthdays and a lot of Thanksgiving turkeys and a lot of time while they’re out somewhere protecting our country. We made a promise to them that we were going to provide them medical benefits, provide them with a basic subsistence for retirement. So that’s the trade-off – some needed benefits after service, and in that service they vowed to risk their lives time and time and time again

The truth is that risk may have happened thousands of times within the course of a single combat tour. Multiply that times many tours, and you know what we’re asking them to do? They’re asking them to hear us and believe us when we say we love you, we honor you for service, now go fight for us and maybe die, or like 30,000 of your brothers, come back traumatically wounded so that they have an impaired ability to work for the rest of your life, or like thousands of others who will experience some sort of terrible psychological trauma, and, oh – sorry, but we’re going to renegotiate the terms of that deal now. You’ve already gone to war, but we are going to renegotiate our solemn contract. 

I’m not talking about pension for someone working in an auto factory that the taxpayer frankly has no business coming to bail out anyway. I’m talking about taking care of patriotic men and women who have been willing to die for you and for me, and we turn our backs on them and we marginalize their sacrifice and their efforts, and frankly it’s not acceptable to me, Verne. What we’re doing now is disgusting, and we should be embarrassed. We should be embarrassed. That’s candidly what I feel.