Good Reads: On Veteran's Day, families of fallen US soldiers fight for truth, adopt foreign puppies

On Veteran's Day 2011, the mood is decidedly somber, with stories of one family of a US fallen soldier fighting for truth of how their son died, and another soldier's family adopting the Iraqi puppy he left behind. 

Back in the old days, Veteran’s Day was a time for small-town newspapers around the country to honor their hometown heroes, and perhaps highlight the closest potluck dinner raising funds for veterans down on their luck.

But in 2011, many small-town newspapers have closed down. Politicians are talking about cutting benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs. And as the White House announces a draw-down of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, a generation of Americans are questioning just what they have been fighting for.

Despite the huge numbers of young men and women who have served in two wars over the past decade -- few Americans can imagine the lives they have led, the fights they have fought, and the memories they treasure or desperately try to purge. As Monitor correspondent Brad Knickerbocker wrote in an Oct. 5 piece, a recent Pew Center opinion poll found that nearly one-third of all post-9/11 veterans believe the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not worth fighting, and 51% believe that “overreliance on military force creates hatred that breeds terrorism.”

It could be worse, one supposes. Vietnam vets were spat upon. But a pervasive mood of doubt is surely not a plus for an America recovering from financial crisis and struggling to find its place in an uncertain, multipolar world.

In this month’s Vanity Fair, Mark Bowden writes about a family with a long tradition of US military service is fighting to get to the bottom of the death of their 24-year-old son, Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, during a July 2008 gun battle in the northeastern Afghan town of Wanat.

With interviews of Lt. Brostrom’s comrades in arms, Mr. Bowden pulls together a chilling vision of what it’s like to be a soldier at a distant outpost, under punishing attack by hundreds of Taliban. Bowden’s story is part detective story, part meditation on what it takes to get men to fight. As Bowden writes about the fallen, Lt. Brostrom’s death feels meaningless.

The lieutenant’s battle was over. His bravery had little impact on the course of the fight. He could not rescue the men on Topside, and those who survived would have done so anyway. As it is with all soldiers who die heroically in battle, his final act would define him emphatically, completely, and forever. In those loud and terrifying minutes he had chosen to leave a place of relative safety, braving intense fire, and had run and scrambled uphill toward the most perilous point of the fight. A man does such a thing out of loyalty so consuming that it entirely crowds out consideration of self. In essence, Jon Brostrom had cast off his own life the instant he started running uphill, and only fate would determine if it would be given back to him when the shooting stopped. He died in the heat of that effort, living fully his best idea of himself.

The Washington Post’s Steve Hendrix focuses on the family of another US Army veteran, Justin Rollins, who decided to honor their son’s memory by bringing home an Iraqi dog the soldier had adopted, just hours before his own death in a roadside bomb blast in March 2007.

For his mother, Rhonda Rollins, bringing the Iraqi puppy – nicknamed Hero -- back to the US is a form of healing, a way of holding onto to the son she lost, at least for a little while longer.

“I felt that if I could hold one of the puppies that he had held, it would bring a little bit of him back to me,” she said.

War isn’t only about heroes, of course, and the New York Times’ William Yardley provides a counterpoint to the day’s hero-worship with a piece about yesterday’s conviction of Sgt. Calvin Gibbs for war crimes, such as murdering Afghan civilians for sport.

According to the testimony of several soldiers in Sgt. Gibbs’ unit, Gibbs organized hunting parties, faked combat situations, and ordered his men to take body-part trophies such as fingers, and a tooth. News of these war crimes enraged Afghan officials and angered senior US military commanders, Mr. Yardley writes. But under the sentencing, Mr. Gibbs will be eligible for parole in 10 years.

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