Prolific ghostwriter Whitney takes her veteran brother’s untimely death—alone at age 53 with just $62 in his bank account—as a starting point for this meditation on what it means to be a veteran in America.
The nation’s ambivalence toward its veterans, the author suggests, is reflected in the contrast between words and deeds, between the ubiquity of yellow “support our troops” magnets on one hand and the number of veterans without adequate institutional support on the other. Whitney feels ambivalent about her estrangement from her brother, who served three tours in Vietnam as a combat engineer while she attended antiwar rallies stateside. “His resentment survived the decades,” she writes. “I was his Jane Fonda, the one who could never be forgiven.” Their personal conflict turned ugly nearly a decade after the war ended, and Jim disappeared to suffer his demons in solitude. Whitney persuasively argues that her brother’s fate is common among veterans of all ages. All but forgotten today, World War I veterans who had gathered in a tent city to shame the Hoover administration into raising their benefits were fired upon by troops ordered to the scene by Douglas MacArthur, who had convinced the president that the agitators were communists. Even the Greatest Generation vets, held up as models for the supposedly selfish Boomers of the Vietnam era, are not immune to the psychologically devastating effects of war. Whitney recounts numerous stories of retirees revisiting the horrors of long-ago battles with delayed posttraumatic stress disorder. More recently, veterans have had to fight an entrenched bureaucracy and partisan politicians to have their service-connected disabilities even recognized, let alone attended to. Though Whitney’s goal—to redress a wrong she feels she participated in against her brother and other veterans—is admirable, she ultimately becomes just another voice of complaint against a notoriously unjust system. She scolds but doesn’t offer a vision of how the system must change.
A poignant memoir and consciousness-raiser, but not the clarion call that our veterans require.