"They Use Us as Pawns and Props" - An Interview with an American Veteran

I speak with military veteran Tim Hardin about the use of veterans as political props, patriotism, and misconceptions about what the military stands for.

Hardin has been extremely active in his community after his return from Afghanistan.

The other day, I saw a picture on Twitter of an American veteran who had lost both his legs overseas. The source of this image was a random nobody who was using his picture to say how much this veteran wished he could stand for the national anthem and that everybody else should to honor his sacrifice. Now, this person had no connection whatsoever to this soldier, but she apparently believed she had a crystal clear understanding of exactly what this man believed in. It struck me as a rather insulting assumption. This man gave his limbs for this country, and he was just getting spoken for as to what that sacrifice means.

The veil had been lifted on this issue, and I began to realize how this type of thing was far from rare. The political utilization of veterans is real, and seeing how so many servicemen and women’s views seem far quieter than the views people unfairly attached to them, I wanted to speak with a veteran and learn how he actually feels about this.

I had the privilege of talking with Tim Hardin, a 12-year veteran of the armed forces who now attends school in New York. After joining in 2002, Hardin deployed twice to Iraq and three times to Afghanistan before exiting the services in 2014.

Alec Lower: First, I was just wondering how long you served in the military, how many tours did you do and where did you go?

Tim Hardin: I served 12 years, from 2002 to 2014. I deployed five times:

2003 - 6 months/ Iraq invasion

2005 - Iraq, 12 months

2010 - Afghanistan, 7 months

2011 - Afghanistan, 7 months

2013 - Afghanistan, 7 months

The first two deployments I was a "Combat Engineer," which is a demolitions and obstacle construction/destruction specialist. The three Afghanistan deployments, I was a Psychological Operations aka "Psyops" soldier, which in the Army is under the umbrella of Special Operations specialties. Army special operations also consists of Green Berets (Special Forces) and Civil Affairs, and Army Rangers. A lot of people use Special Forces and Special Operations interchangeably, but they aren’t always the same.

And at the time of joining, what was it that made you want or why did you decide you wanted to serve?

A big reason for me joining was to earn GI Bill benefits. My first enlistment contract was for four years, and I took the maximum education bonus I could, and in doing so, passed up a larger cash enlistment bonus. GI Bill was the main reason, but I also felt like I was doing something honorable, and I signed up for the Army about seven months after the attack on 9/11. So 9/11 factored in, but my plan was always to set myself up for debt-free college attendance after serving for four years. The reason I stayed in after four years was because I tried out for Special Forces training and was selected, so I extended my contract to complete the training. However, I washed out of the training after one year and volunteered for psychological operations, and when I finished that training, I signed up for another six years. After that six-year contract ended in 2014, I moved from North Carolina to New York City and immediately enrolled in college. I was 21 when I washed out of Green Beret training, and it crushed me personally. They told me I could return to the training in one year, but after I finished my PsyOps training, I started deploying to Afghanistan and never returned; never returned to finish the SF training, that is.

So now into the more topic-centric questions here. What would you want your service and the service of other veterans to result in for this country as a whole?

Ideally, I want military service to make our country safer, more secure, and more prosperous and stable for every single American. Ideally, I want that service and foreign policy to be democratized so that the people who have to fight in our wars also get to help make decisions about those wars.

Do you ever feel like some people try to speak for you as a member of "the troops" and assume what you stand for?

Lol, yeah all the time. Liberals and conservatives both do it but neither have any claim to the troops/veterans and what we do or don’t stand for. They use us as pawns and props all of the time, and a lot of veterans are starting to speak out against it. Troops/veterans aren’t some homogeneous or monolithic subset of society who feel the same way or think the same way. As a veteran, I feel like I can engage in political conversations with fellow veterans who completely disagree with my politics, but since we share the bond of service, we listen to each other and don’t try to tear each other apart. I’m completely fine with individual veterans and troops invoking their own service to make a point about themselves—what bothers me is when people make broad generalizations and assumptions about all veterans or troops.

Kind of a similar question, but obviously you're very active in your community. When you see people condemning activists and protesters and people engaging in activities of that nature and using the military as a rationale for it (e.g. statements like "if only you cared this much about veteran homelessness"). Is that something you encounter often and if so what feelings if any does it evoke?

Oh dang, these are really good questions. I don’t encounter critiques like that in my community really, but I’m very fortunate to be in NYC with a very robust activist community and lots of organizations who put in an incredible amount of work to address those societal ills. Homelessness is a big issue in NYC, but the number of homeless veterans in NYC dropped like 80% in the six years following 2009. I see it on social media though, and it makes me roll my eyes. People who say stuff like that often don’t lift a finger to help veterans. As a veteran, I have access to such an incredible number of resources for help and assistance if I need it. That’s because activists and advocates put in an incredible amount of work to take care of us, even though politicians and corporations go through the motions.

And while we're on this topic, did you want to give a few places where people could donate or do something to help problems with vet homelessness and suicide?

For sure, the VA website has great resources for suicide prevention. Homelessness and suicide assistance are also available at VA hospitals, and they can connect people to other organizations that help out.

Awesome, really wanted to put that in here. Next question is super topical to right now, but as somebody whose service represents what is at the center of the controversy surrounding these protests during the national anthem at sporting events, how do you feel about individuals kneeling, locking arms, and taking part in protests at that time?

I fully support and appreciate those expressions of free speech. I’m a strong proponent of free speech when it’s not hate speech. In the NFL especially, the Anthem ceremonies are fairly recent. In college, the teams aren’t even on the field for the Anthem. Kaepernick even listened to an Army veteran who suggested the kneeling (as opposed to sitting). He asked a veteran and listened, and he still catches hell for speaking out against police brutality and racial inequality. I think the nationalistic Anthem ceremonies are kind of fake and unhealthy, to be honest. They’re just performative and meaningless expressions of patriotism. If people were truly patriotic, they would do more than just [stand for] a flag and do performative patriotism. Democracy is participatory, and I don’t think most of the people who take part in these ceremonies participate in society to the degree required for America to be a healthy society.

That actually leads perfectly into my next question, which you may have just answered, but how do you personally define patriotism?

I define patriotism as taking ownership in our society by engaging with significant issues, by being part of solutions through meaningful participation. To me, true patriots take their civic duties seriously. They vote, they learn about the issues, and they support all of the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights... not just one or two of their favorite amendments. Patriots also hold politicians and government officials accountable for their mistakes and failures.

“And the last question I’ve got is how do you feel is the best and most correct way to honor the service and sacrifice of veterans?

The best and most correct way in my opinion is to demand a fair and equitable society, to support the constitutional rights of all Americans, to participate in politics, and to demand that politicians vote on the AUMF so that we have a vote on our endless war that’s been going on for 16 years without a vote. And also to care for veterans and soldiers who return from those wars with both visible and invisible wounds. We must fully fund the VA and ensure that veterans receive the care that we were promised when we volunteered to serve.

I hope everybody can take something away from Hardin’s words, especially those who have routinely failed to understand how diverse in thought and belief the armed services are. Obviously Hardin and his beliefs don’t speak for all veterans, but that’s also precisely the point. I couldn’t possibly say it better than “they use us as pawns and props all of the time, and a lot of veterans are starting to speak out against it. Troops/veterans aren’t some homogenous or monolithic subset of society who feel the same way or think the same way.”

If you really wish to honor the sacrifices of the brave men and women who have fought and died for this country, listen to the words written here today by Mr. Hardin. Understand the diversity of the armed services and stop slinging around "the troops" as a weapon to attack people you don't agree with. That's far more disrespectful than any peaceful protest could ever be. 

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