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'Unit cohesion' in a time of discord

Military service teaches the value of sticking with and defending others who may be very much unlike you.
Military service teaches the value of sticking with and defending others who may be very much unlike you. (Wakil Kohsar / AFP/Getty Images)

I've recently started accompanying my husband on the VA shuttle buses to the Baltimore VA hospital. It's always an interesting ride — a mix of hospital staff and veterans of various ages and wars.

Mike says it reminds him of the many bus, plane, jeep, etc. rides of the Army: an unlikely mix of men of all types all crammed together, all united as they try to cheer each other up and fortify each other's courage as they head toward some difficult, terrifying and possibly fatal ordeal. Back then they were facing bullets in a jungle or desert.

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Now, in the VA van, these ex-soldiers are riding to a different, but just as deadly, battlefield. Each veteran on that bus knows that he and his vanmates are heading to the hospital to fight some medical enemy — cancer, diabetes, mental illness. And so they fall into the old patterns of "unit cohesion."

On our last van trip home, it was just Mike, me, and one other gentleman who appeared to be in his late 60s or early 70s, who used a cane, and who happened to be African-American. He fell asleep on the ride, and I gently shook his arm a little to wake him up when the driver arrived at his stop. He apparently had been in deep sleep and seemed kind of confused when he woke up. He had great difficulty in getting off the van and then stood for a minute on the street, holding on to the van door, seeming a little unsteady and lost.

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Though this was quite a few miles from our own stop, Mike jumped up and took his arm and said "I'll walk you home," and told me to go get the car and return to pick him up. My eyes leaked a little as I watched Mike picking his way through the battlefield of aging and sickness, arm in arm with a "stranger" (but fellow veteran, American, human) fighting a different (but the same) battle.

This is the best of America. This is what our leaders should be promoting. Not division. Not resentment.

All the veterans in my family (father, husband) say they completely support anyone who wants to protest anything about America. Mike reminded me that the oath you take to join the Army requires you to defend the Constitution. Not a president. Not a flag. And the Constitution includes the First Amendment. The ability to critique the many real problems this country faces is what has enabled our democracy to survive more than 200 years. If we stop respecting our fellow Americans who happen to disagree with us, we risk heading into another Civil War.

I'd guess that many of the folks who claim that some protesters are "disrespecting veterans" probably haven't served in the Armed Forces and thus haven't had the experience of trusting a (different from them) fellow American with their lives. Mike and I have noticed that in our circle of friends, which tends to be dominated by the well-educated, almost no one has served in the Armed Forces. And no one even considers that as an option for their children. We wonder why.

Yes, there are risks. But there are also great benefits, not only to the young people, who learn discipline and service, but to our society, because the service instills a sense of responsibility to your "unit" — your fellow soldiers riding this big blue planetary Huey that is hurtling us through space and time toward doom. No one gets out of the ultimate battle alive. So let's start supporting our fellow platoonmates in the human army.

--Kim Clark Salmon

The writer is a journalist from Cecil County.

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