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Not To Be Forgotten

When Tammy Duckworth takes the stage tonight for the DNC tribute to veterans, she’ll be representing not only veterans of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also those from peacetime and all of America’s conflicts. Duckworth is an Iraq War double amputee from Illinois who in 2006 made a spirited but unsuccessful bid for Congress and is currently director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. The theme for the day is “Securing America’s Future,” and Duckworth joins a roster of heavyweight Democratic voices speaking that day, Bill Clinton and V.P. nominee Joe Biden among them.

During the vets tribute we are certain to see a video featuring injured service members going through arduous rehab, homecoming shots of reunited families, and photos from Obama’s recent Middle East trip highlighting his rapport with soldiers. Vets don’t want or need this video, or even a “tribute.” In the military they call this a Dog and Pony Show: You shine the brass, mow the lawns, and paint the rocks for the general’s drive-by--but nothing changes. The Democrats want to prove to vets that things have changed, that their guy can be an effective Commander-in-Chief, that they can be the party of the fighting man and woman. It can be done. But it will take more than trotting vets in front of a convention hall full of delegates wearing funny hats and sunglasses.

For me, the Max Cleland et al vets rollout in 2004 had the feel-good vibe of a funeral for a disliked uncle: Everyone showed up and most of them were uncomfortable. Like most minority groups, veterans shun attention and want only to be allowed to work hard and succeed. Being a veteran myself, I loathe the tag. Vets don’t want to be called out as exceptional and deserving of praise or preferential treatment simply for doing a job they signed up for. When injured or in dire straits, they expect assistance for the service they gave their country.

Tonight, I’d like to hear a fierce commitment to VA funding and long-term care. Democrats have recently outshone Republicans in this realm--the Jim Webb overhaul of education benefits has tremendous potential to change lives in the same way the GI Bill did after World War II--and they now have a chance to cement support from a group that has historically been aligned with the Republicans.

I’d also like to hear the outlines of a disciplined foreign policy that makes clear where America stands in relation to its allies and enemies. No population should be paying closer attention to this policy than veterans and active duty military. How the military is used directly affects how the veteran is treated in later years. Unpopular wars tend to drop out of the news cycles and the daily psychic lives of the majority of Americans, those who, thanks to an all-volunteer army, are never directly touched by combat and its various trials.

After a number of years in which force has often been the first response, veterans and military members should look forward to an Obama foreign policy approach that puts a premium on diplomacy and the belief that America has a thematic power just as great as its guns. Our fighting men and women are deeply patriotic, and many are painfully aware that our international reputation has taken a beating in the last half dozen years. They rightfully believe that that reputation can be restored and burnished. Perhaps that’s why despite Obama’s scant attachment to the military and military culture--Bill Clinton at least dodged a draft and opposed a war--he is $55,000 ahead of war hero John McCain in donations from military members.

Tammy Duckworth will be a brave and committed national face for the American veteran Wednesday night. If on veterans’ issues the Obama campaign can harness some of the same strength and tenacity that Duckworth embodies, they’ll be on their way to gaining the respect, and the votes, of veterans and military personnel. The video? They can just keep that in the bank. What veterans want is not to be forgotten when the rest of the country moves on from this war.

Anthony Swofford is a Marine Corps veteran and the author of the books Jarhead and Exit A.

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By Anthony Swofford