Imagine if it were reported that millions of letters addressed to Santa Claus had been tossed in the garbage or returned to their senders and stamped “The Pentagon and U.S. Postal Service have returned your letter because we have determined that Santa Claus is not a real person.” Think of the ensuing national uproar.
But where's the outrage over the revelation this month that cards and letters written to anonymous wounded soldiers have gone undelivered and have been either returned or thrown away? Unlike Santa, wounded soldiers are real. They deserve to get their mail.
In a Dec. 11 AP story, Jay Reeves writes that “since the Sept. 11 attacks and the anthrax scare, the Pentagon and the Postal Service have refused to deliver mail addressed simply to ‘Any Wounded Soldier' for fear terrorists or opponents of the war might send toxic substances or demoralizing messages.” At Walter Reed Hospital alone, more than 450,000 letters and cards have gone undelivered. And according to Lt. Col. Kevin Arata, a spokesperson for the Army Human Resources Command, the overall volume of returned unnamed-soldier mail is not quantified.
The AP story appeared in the wake of public criticism of the policy by troop-supporting, networking letter-writers like Candy Roquemore of Austin and Fena D'Ottavio of Chicago, who wonder if the government might just be overreacting.
“Are we going to forget our soldiers because we are running in fear?” asks D'Ottavio.
“I just wanted to say, ‘Thank you, sorry you're hurt, and happy holidays,'” said Roquemore.
Yes, Fena and Candy, the government is overreacting.
Let's look at the grounds for the policy, cited by spokespersons for both Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the USO: 1. security concerns and 2. potentially offensive anti-war messages.
First, the fear of an anonymous soldier receiving a letter containing anthrax might sound compelling. Better to keep those hundreds of thousands of letters out of the hands of our troops than risk losing one brave soldier to a terrorist mail bomb, right? Protecting the troops is a noble goal, but do they really need protecting from holiday cards, and is this policy really helping?
A soldier has never been attacked with anthrax. But if one were to be targeted, consider that millions of cards and letters addressed to named soldiers are delivered. So what's to prevent a terrorist from going online, looking up, say, the name of a soldier working at Guantanamo and attacking that soldier through the mail? Why would an attacker be any less likely to select a randomly chosen soldier than an anonymous one? An examination of the “security threat” justification reveals it to be a leftover relic of initial post-9/11 paranoid overreaction.
The second reason stated for denying wounded troops access to their mail is the concern that a letter might contain messages offensive to the soldiers.
“There could be inappropriate mail from someone who, say, doesn't support the war, and then you've got a wounded soldier getting it,” said Walter Reed spokesperson Terry Goodman.
And less diplomatic USO spokesman John Hanson told Reeves, “We just want to make sure it's not, ‘Die, baby killer.'” He added, “There are people out there who act irrationally, and we don't want anyone to get a message that would be discouraging.”
If the anthrax worry is grasping at straws, the “Die, baby killer” worry is grasping a straw, inserting it up America's butt and blowing smoke up it.
The myth of the angry anti-war protestor who hates the troops is an ugly phantom invented to humiliate Americans into submission and squelch any democratic impulses. It reached a fever pitch in the wake of the morally bankrupt and disastrous failure in Vietnam, when the entire anti-war movement became caricatured in popular lore as a hippie spitting on a soldier. This “spitting image,” as author and Vietnam veteran Jerry Lembcke named it in his book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam, has persisted through popular films like Rambo and the crude stereotypes of Iraq War protestors hyped in the mass media in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Never mind that by the 1970s, a majority of Americans demanded an end to the Vietnam War, just as most Americans now oppose the occupation of Iraq. Never mind that these majorities include people of all ages, walks of life and political affiliations, including soldiers and military families. Never mind that there is practically zero documentary evidence that soldiers were spat on. Never mind that the vast majority of Americans have no trouble distinguishing between the policies of the government and the actions of soldiers.
Just as the spitting image is a myth, the concern that those with anti-war sentiments would send a mean Christmas card to an anonymous wounded soldier at Walter Reed reveals the disturbing tenacity of this myth. Goodman and Hanson offer not a shred of evidence that such a letter has ever been sent. I defy them to dig through their garbage and pluck out the heartfelt letters sent to the wounded soldiers and produce one that calls a soldier a baby killer. Even if they find one stupid letter in a million, they should hire a screener to read them all. Put that $500 billion budget to use!
It's time to ditch this half-cocked policy. I don't know who to write to at the Pentagon to get the policy changed, but I suspect that Goodman and Hanson are pretty well-connected. Send your demands for a policy change to:
An Anonymous Mentally Challenged Pentagon Bureaucrat, c/o Terry Goodman, Deputy Director Public Affairs/Strategic Communications, Walter Reed Army Medical Center 6900 Georgia Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., 20307-5001, and John Hanson, Senior Vice President for Marketing and Communications, USO World Headquarters, 2111 Wilson Blvd., Suite 1200, Arlington, Va., 22201.
While you're at it, please explain to Goodman and Hanson how lame they sound for portraying those who disagree with the war as potentially rude to wounded soldiers. And could you do me a favor and ask them to personally pass along this message from me to the next wounded soldier they meet: “Hope you're on the road to recovery, and happy holidays.”
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