A Marine hugs his mom after returning from deployment. May is Military Appreciation Month. (Lance Cpl. Paul S. Martinez/Marine Corps)
Today marks Day One of the 15th annual celebration of Military Appreciation Month. Yet much of the nation still has no clue about how to truly appreciate the military that makes great sacrifices to keep them safe.
Sure, fellow travelers will buy a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine or Coastie a beer in an airport terminal. Teachers will direct students to write essays about famous military leaders. Baseball fans will cheer for a combat vet throwing out the first pitch.
Such heartfelt gestures are all worthy acknowledgments. But acknowledgment is not the same as understanding — a prerequisite for true appreciation.
An equally important prerequisite to appreciation is to avoid misunderstanding.
Unfortunately, in a nation where less than 1 percent of the citizenry wears a military uniform and just 13 percent are veterans, there is widespread misunderstanding — and even ignorance — about what service really means.
Too often, troops are seen as trained killing machines eager to engage in that singular objective, only to later return to the civilian world unskilled, uneducated, angry, damaged and dangerous.
Over the past 13 years of combat, popular media — books, movies, video games and, yes, newspapers — often have fed such misperceptions, peddling combat violence as entertainment that fills the vacuum of knowledge about the truth of who serves in uniform and how that experience shapes them.
Here’s a far more accurate picture:
■ 26 percent of veterans age 25 and older have at least a bachelor’s degree, versus 28 percent of the total population.
■ 92 percent of veterans age 25 and older have at least a high school diploma, versus 86 percent of the total population.
■ Veterans’ median annual income is $35,367, considerably higher than the non-veteran population’s $24,521 median.
■ 70 percent of veterans voted in the 2012 presidential election, compared to about 61 percent of total eligible voters.
Those Census Bureau statistics show America’s veterans are educated, motivated, successful and civically engaged.
So it’s no wonder the veterans’ community reacts strongly when their entire demographic is painted otherwise.
One recent example of this phenomenon was an interactive map created by the online Huffington Post after the recent deadly shootings at Fort Hood, Texas. The map noted the locations where violent crimes across the U.S. had been committed by veterans — as if their veteran status, in and of itself, was the primary factor behind each and every one of those violent acts.
Under withering criticism, The Huffington Post quickly took the map down and apologized, saying it essentially was intended as a plea for better mental health services for veterans.
No reasonable person would argue that there are not great numbers of combat vets who need support, whether in mental health services, physical care, housing or employment — and the nation owes a particular debt to them to ensure that ample resources are provided to help address those needs.
But it should not be forgotten that countless nonveteran Americans are in need of the same types of support.
The greatest disservice that can be done to veterans is to lump them all into a single highly skewed stereotype.
The first step to truly appreciating the service and sacrifice of America’s veterans is to understand that the vast majority served with honor while in uniform and continue to do so in civilian life, as neighbors, co-workers, spouses, parents and members of their communities.