The 11th day of the 11th month is set aside to honor our nation’s veterans. We owe all of them a debt of gratitude, not just those who went in harm’s way. All who were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice and served honorably deserve the utmost respect. And, by and large, Americans give them that and gratitude. Civilian leaders—specifically the President, members of Congress, the Secretary of Defense, service secretaries, and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs—share the greatest responsibility for honoring and serving veterans. There are a couple ways to do a better job of these most solemn obligations.
The phrase “boots on the ground” began as an inoffensive expression to indicate the need for combat troops as opposed to only firepower for effectively fighting an insurgency. Today, though, the term is used to refer to actual people instead of a strategy or tactic. It has become all too common to hear leaders and the media speak of deployments or troop counts in this way.
The expression is particularly abhorrent when used by civilian and uniformed military leaders, because they have a duty to humanize troop deployments and the sacrifices our forces make for our mutual security. “Boots on the ground” obfuscates sending our youth into harm’s way on foreign soil, in situations where Americans deserve unambiguous and honest statements.
So common and confusing is this phrase that a recent CNN article asked: “When are troops ‘advisers’ and when are they ‘boots on the ground’?” (16 September 2014). The question was in what way the 1,700 American “close combat advisers” already in Iraq differed from combat troops. It’s a good question, and an indication that the media is aware leaders are using vague definitions to describe fighting roles. This dishonors warriors’ sacrifices and serves no valid purpose other than political convenience.
The way we refer to our people indicates how we view and value them. Use of this phrase reinforces a conscript mentality and dehumanizes the deployment of Americans to combat zones. Substituting “boots” for “troops” is more than simply a matter of semantics.
Public Law 106-65, Section 578, details funeral honors due to veterans, no matter how or when they begin their eternal watch. But now budget cuts endanger the services’ ability to continue this. The Army’s 2015 budget for military funerals is only half that needed to conduct the honors prescribed by law.
This shortfall is $27.2 million. While every dollar saved matters, this truly is a drop in the relative bucket. Our dedication to uphold or willingness to ignore our commitment to honoring veterans as they are laid to rest defines us as a culture. Civilian and military leaders must fully fund this program.
And the honors must be appropriate. The law mandates use of a bugler to sound “Taps,” or a recorded version if a bugler is not available. The playing of “Taps” and the rifle salute are poignant moments in a military funeral, and using technology in their place is unbefitting our veterans’ sacrifices.
We should be obligated to provide a live bugler for military funerals, never a recording or a uniformed service member pretending to play an electronic bugle. Our personnel spend countless hours working on sometimes senseless collateral duties. It would be easy and appropriate to identify some troops willing and able to learn “Taps.” Their participation in funeral honors would mean more to them and veterans’ families than any other collateral duty.
We honor our veterans in a variety of ways. Speeches and monuments and benefits are not enough. We appropriately honor them when we refer to them in human terms, when we personalize their sacrifices, and when we recognize their contributions when they are laid to rest.