It is Memorial Day today in the United States, a day in which America honors those soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of their country. What started out as Decoration Day in 1865, when freed southern blacks in Charleston, South Carolina placed ribbons and flowers at the graves of fallen Union soldiers of the Civil War, has become a day in which we reflect on the inhumanity of war while honoring the humanity of those who served and died in them.
On this somber day, it might seem strange that I would bring up United's new policy of allowing uniformed military personnel to board in front of everyone else, but I think this the perfect day to discuss why I think such a policy is a mistake.
As someone who served in the U.S. Air Force I want to make clear from the outset that I am not anti-military or a disgruntled ex-soldier. Quite the contrary, I submit that the view I hold reflects the a widely-held military mindset of humility and integrity.
Whether as an honest attempt to thank soldiers for their service or a clever marketing ruse to make the traveling public feel warm and fuzzy, United and Continental board uniformed military personnel first, even before the first class cabin or families with infants. A cursory analysis of this policy points to a simple way to honor U.S. troops, but a closer look reveals that the policy uncomfortably places soldiers (including the 90% of military personnel [like myself] who never see combat) on a pedestal, singling them out in a hollow way like when we warmly praise someone at a funeral we never really took the time to get to know.
Thank any soldier for their service and almost all will tell you they were just doing their job. And that is the correct answer. Many join the military for economic reasons. Others join for more selfless reasons while others join out of boredom. For whatever reason, though, we owe a debt of gratitude to those who take an oath agreeing to sacrifice their lives in the support and defense of our Constitution.
Yet we should show that appreciation not by those awkward moments like parading military members onboard an aircraft before anyone else, but in volunteering time and money to veterans' causes (like the Hero Miles Program), showing solidarity with military families in tangible ways like sharing meals, and voting for politicians who will not be so flippant in sending other people's children to war.
The bottom line is that while soldiers hold a special place in American society and deserve special recognition for their willingness to put themselves on the line for others, so do policemen, firemen, and some doctors and missionaries. All are paid for their work and receive satisfaction from doing a job that helps and protects others. They do not need to be reminded of that every time they step onto an airplane and there are much better ways, as I outlined above, to show gratitude.
The incredible sacrifice our military personnel have made from the Revolutionary War to the ongoing War in Afghanistan is something we must constantly keep at the forefront of our minds. But as General and later President Dwight D. Eisenhower stated in his 1945 Guildhall Address in London, "Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends."
Eisenhower pinpoints the military mindset I mentioned earlier of humility. While I am sure that most military personnel humbly accept their invitation to board the aircraft first, wouldn't it be better to show our appreciation in a more sincere way? All the soldiers I know do not want special treatment or even to be thanked for their service--they are simply proud to have served.
United would be wise to show the military appreciation by cutting a check to the families of fallen and wounded sliders rather than parading military personnel in front of everyone else in a way that gives lip service to their hard work while completely glossing over the other professionals in this country who also are prepared at a moment's notice to make the ultimate sacrifice.