She Who Had No Idea
She probably didn't mean to come across as ignorant and ironic.
There was no question, though, that she had an intent.
The woman was a fellow federal worker, and we were sitting across from each other for a meeting earlier this week. As the small group of us sat around waiting for the others, we made introductions and small talk.
There was talk about how motorized scooters are helpful when an office building is super long with many hallways. I mentioned how Segways would have been helpful in the Pentagon, but joked that the Marines would have nothing to do with it.
Some of the folks laughed, and this led to a few examples of how technology has changed the way the military does business.
That's when she spoke up.
"You know, my daughter has an engineering degree and was offered some really well-paying jobs with the Navy and Army, but she turned them down because she just couldn't be a part of the killing machine. The submarines. The killing. She just couldn't do it."
Then she mentioned her daughter instead works in a big city for a multinational financial services corporation.
The whole time she spoke, the woman was looking right at me.
As her words sunk in, I felt like the air was starting to swirl around my head. I was stunned. Just moments before, I had identified myself as having worked for the military.
Was that ...? Was that a dig at me? A passive-aggressive way to call all DOD employees killers? What did her daughter's career choices have anything to do with mine?
And what did her statement have anything to do with the conversation and context of our meeting?
I simply responded, "You must be so proud."
As the meeting started, I tried to shift focus and concentrate on my work. But my thoughts kept returning to her statements, and later that morning, when I returned to my office, I went to my supervisor to talk about it. Was I being too sensitive? Did he also find the woman's comments to be inappropriate?
To my relief, he did.
In fact, he was genuinely offended and apologetic that I experienced that. There is the dilemma that I will have to work with this person and her agency in the future. He recommended I head up to Human Resources to talk with Doc, the HR manager who specifically handles veterans affairs within my department.
In a funny twist that proves to me that the world works in mysterious ways, Doc himself appeared at my supervisor's door at that moment for an unrelated matter. My supervisor invited him in and the three of us talked about the situation together.
It was while I was speaking with Doc that I learned things that made my heart sink.
This lady and her comments are not unusual.
While the vast majority of people within my department treat veterans the same way they would any other employee, there is a small percentage who look and treat veterans with contempt and disgust. In fact, Doc deals with these sorts of incidents all the time. It's a reason a veterans program was created. Veterans are subjected to ignorance every single day in the federal government.
I had no idea.
Of course, I knew that veterans leaving the military face challenges when entering the workforce. I knew about the laws, programs, and incentives put in place to help veterans find jobs. Heck, I even wrote about them during my time at the Pentagon.
I did not realize, though, that once those veterans do get their foot in the door, they are sometimes met with hostility and ignorance.
If comments are specific, threatening, discriminatory, or related to gender, race, disabilities, and any other one of those protected qualities, they would be punishable. But the First Amendment's freedom of speech allows people like the woman who spoke to me to offensively tap-dance in that gray area of inappropriateness.
There are a variety of reasons.
Some are resentful of the 5- or 10-point advantage veterans get when applying for federal employment. This is especially true in a poor job market where there are thousands upon thousands of people applying for federal jobs.
Some are resentful of what they see as job perks, such as "extra leave time" to attend to Reserve or Guard military duty. Others see military retirement and the free education benefits as a waste of tax dollars.
And some just feel like anyone connected to the military is part of a ruthless, grisly killing machine. Not far behind that is the assumption that military people are inhumane droids who kill, kill, kill, or are battle-hardened basket cases just waiting to snap.
As I sat listening to examples of other veterans and what they've faced in the workplace -- the federal workplace, no less -- I just couldn't help, but shake my head.
My heart hurts when I think about my veteran brothers and sisters who are being subjected to this out there. While I am at peace and proud of my military experiences, others who are struggling or trying to get their professional footing may be devastated.
Yet, it makes sense.
Statistically speaking, if you are an American -- regardless of race, gender, political affiliation, whatever -- chances are pretty good that you do not personally know a veteran. (Of course, this is not true for the vast majority of my blog readers: some type of military connection probably brought you here.) But consider that about 1 percent of the American population has military service under their belt.
And consider that the group who creates the largest percentage of those veterans is growing smaller every day: more people served in World War II and the Korean War than other conflicts. So if a person today does have a family connection to the military, it is probably a great-grandparent who is most likely not around anymore.
In a decade or so, the second biggest cluster of veterans -- from the Vietnam era, which experienced it's own shameful treatment of vets -- will also grow smaller as those veterans grow older and pass away. It was during that era the draft went away, too, resulting in an all-volunteer and much smaller force that went on to serve in Desert Storm, the Balkans, and all the 9/11-era conflicts.
So it's easy to see why a person -- any random person out there in the street -- would have no connection at all to a military person except, of course, for what they see in the media, which is often stories like this, this, and this. And if that's all the exposure a person has to the military, then it's not hard to see how a person can be so ignorant to the DOD, it's missions, and the people who serve there.
After Doc, my supervisor, and I talked, I knew what needed to be done. Doc put it on me to turn this into a positive thing, to use it as an opportunity to educate this woman about the effects of her comments, recommending I send an email.
So, I did.
At any other time and place, a cerebral conversation with her about war, peace, military, America, patriotism, the economy, the financial industry, employment opportunities, and other lofty subjects would probably be fascinating over coffee. I'm sure she would be more struck by our similarities than our differences.
But we weren't in a cafe drinking coffee. We are two people who have to work together. And what happened was not cool.
My intent in confronting her was not to change the way this woman thinks and feels. It was not because I wanted an apology or some type of appreciation, either.
I wrote her an email, making clear that I do not take issue with any beliefs and feelings she and her daughter have regarding the DOD and its mission. I wrote that I really do understand the sentiment, and appreciate that military service (whether in uniform or as a civilian) is not for everyone.
I wrote that making such a comment with the implication that those who work for the DOD are part of a killing machine was rude and inappropriate, especially in a meeting in front of other professionals. It made me feel awkward and uncomfortable, as if she was indirectly commenting on my own values and judgment for being a part of the DOD.
I also wrote that while the defense of a country involves fighting and war, it's much more than that. I pointed out that while we were conducting our meeting, the Louisiana National Guard was out there plucking citizens off their roofs and passing out supplies in the wake of Hurricane Isaac, something we could watch over social media via technology produced and made accessible to the public by military research, using satellites maintained and protected by the U.S. military.
I complimented her daughter for sticking to her values and working for a company that adheres to the principles that are important to her, and said I would be remiss if I didn't exercise my own principles and speak up about the comment. And then I asked that she simply be mindful about making such comments in the future.
I've yet to receive a reply. And frankly, I don't expect one.
Fortunately, that wasn't the point of my actions.
I stuck up for myself. And all those other veterans facing the same thing should have the courage to stick up for themselves, too.
Nobody owes veterans a single thing for our service.
But what we are owed is respect as human beings.
Since 2001, I've shared it all on my personal blog: the ups and downs, the
joy and the sadness. While I work doing social media for the government, I'm a
writer and photographer, too, and most of all, proud wife and mother. All
thoughts and ideas expressed here and on my blog are all my own.