I saw “Act of Valor” tonight, and wow, let me tell you, that was an intense movie. It brought back a lot of memories. Some good. Some uncomfortable.
It’s been 15 years since I had rounds fired in anger my way, and even with that distance, a movie like this is enough to awaken old demons.
And given that my two days in harm’s way in ’97 pales in comparison to many of the men and women who are doing long tours today, and given that I’ve had 15 years to shake some of those thoughts, I can’t imagine how recent veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq may react to this movie.
But, I’ll tell you this. You walk out of that theater taller than you walked in. You walk out of that theater with a pride that you manned up, when so many stepped away, or turned their head, or never even considered it.
You walk out of it angry. You walk out of it with the memory of all the names of the fallen Seals scrolling up the screen at the end of the movie. Names you tried to catch and memorize, while others ignored them or talked and laughed as they were shown. And as people walked out of the theater — either oblivious or uncaring about the names that are scrolling up, slow and deathly white on that black screen — you think back to names you knew yourself.
Names of folks you knew when you were in, who didn’t make it home. Names you knew who got seriously injured (or even died) in training ops, while most soft frat-boy types were taking the easy path, enjoying college and football and women while you were out suffering in some god-forsaken country or freezing your ass off in the field. And as you sit in that theater at the end of the movie, you know that most of these same frat boys are riding the coat tails of their rich parents and turning a snobbish nose toward the poor like us who don’t talk like them and can’t hold a fork the right way.
And then so many of these same frat boys dare run for office and call it “public service.” They know nothing about public service, these elitist, better-than-thou, my-dad-handed-me-a-job (or got his golf buddy to hand me a job) punks, who dare wear a flag on their $2,000 lapel and then have the nerve to call veterans “unpatriotic” if they don’t fully fall in line behind every war.
So many of them steal our honor and hide behind the walls we defend, then cut back-room deals with lobbyists, bankers, and business titans. They screw the poor, protect the rich, and find ways to multiply their wealth, all while calling it “public service.”
And then they attend Veterans Day events and see crippled warriors and messed-up veterans and defeated homeless and say stupid things like, “Freedom is not free.” Or, “May God bless you.” (Heaven forbid they actually pull out their fat wallet and let God work through them…)
But in their defense, they have no idea, and unless you’ve been in the shit, you don’t either.
To all the warriors out there, the precious few who helped defend this great land, I hope you find peace. I hope you’ll talk out those feelings you have, or throw them in a post like this.
I pray you can find hope again in the world, and forgive all those who’ve taken your service for granted. And I hope that days, weeks, even years from now, you still walk out of whatever room you’re leaving standing taller and prouder than those around you.
Many of those frat boys who know nothing of what I’m talking about may have their dollars and their titles and their gated communities, but when they look in the mirror at night, and look back at the soft eyes that greet them, they know. They know they passed up the chance to be gladiators. They know — even with our poverty, with our broken and soft bodies weighed down by stress, mental issues, and heartbreak — they know deep down that we’ve got twice as much spine as them, and three times the integrity and honor.
They see movies like “Act of Valor” as a patriotic picture worth telling their friends about. We see it as something that defies words. As something that brings up emotions and feelings the likes of which they could never fathom. We think of ways to kill them with our bare hands. Slowly.
They may call us unstable. They may avoid us and laugh at how poor many of us end up, and how stupid and uneducated we are.
But they know that no matter how rich they get, how tall they stand, or how high they climb in the corporate world or in status at their country club, when they had their chance, they failed to measure up. And that’s one thing they can’t take from us.
They can cruelly foreclose our homes and lay us off by the hundreds. They can even break us, temporarily, earning fat bonuses in the process.
But there’s one thing they can’t take, and that’s our pride. Stand tall, my fellow brother and sister.
We’re a part of a club that defies comprehension or description.
It’s deep and often dark. And the price of admission makes other club dues seem cheap by comparison. But, we bore the weight then and we can bear the weight now. And if along the way we lose our cool or get labeled unstable by those around us, we’ll just have to let it slide. You don’t spend time in hell and come home the same. And you don’t leave a movie while the names of the fallen scroll across the screen.
Stan R. Mitchell
Oak Ridge, Tenn.
P.S. If you enjoy fast-paced books, you just might like my works. “Sold Out” tracks the life of a legendary Marine Sniper after a CIA unit decides to kill him for reasons of national security. “Little Man, and the Dixon County War” tells the uphill fight a young deputy faces after surviving three years of war only to find himself in the sights of a mighty cattle baron. And “Soldier On,” a short novel, follows the lives of several German soldiers in a depleted infantry company trying to make it through the final, miserable months of World War II.