The Story That Wasn't Told

Dan Le Batard has a really wonderful column in the Herald about Tim James, a Miami native from a meager economic background who became a star not only at the University of Miami, but who played in the NBA as well, and who now is a soldier serving in Iraq.

The story is mostly one of James's modesty. He doesn't talk about his NBA background with his fellow soldiers--in fact, he tries to keep it secret so he won't be treated any differently. But underlying the entire piece is this one notion: Tim James didn't have to do this, but he did, and he's not doing it out of some desire to regain some lost celebrity. Notice the following passages:

Betty James wanted to scream. She knew she had raised a tough man in Liberty City, but did he have to go and be this tough? He had other career options. Teaching. Coaching. Couldn't he choose a new career path in his 30s that didn't involve insurgents and explosions?...

Betty James never told him she didn't approve, even as her friends told her that her son was out of his mind....

Word on the base is now spreading that James was an NBA player, so during the hottest and dirtiest days, fellow soldiers will ask: What the hell are you doing here? You chose this?
It's never said explicitly, but the message is clear--military service in a combat zone is usually for people who don't have many other options. This is so understood that people who break that rule get newspaper columns and tv news features done about them. If it happened all the time, it wouldn't be news. After all, when was the last time you saw a story about a high school graduate with middling grades in an economically depressed area sign up for the military? It just doesn't happen.

What does it say about the way our society values military service, that it's considered odd that a person of even modest means would willingly choose enlisting? Mind you, I'm not talking about the people who go to the military academies--I'm talking about those who look at college as an impossibility without the GI Bill (and maybe even with it), or who sign up for the Guard or Reserves for the extra money, like a lot of my fraternity brothers did (and I nearly did). Our leaders talk a lot of about our "all-volunteer military" and its professionalism, and it's true we don't have conscription anymore, but volunteering takes on a slightly different flavor when the other options are being either under- or unemployed because the economy has gone to crap around you. Suddenly a meager but steady paycheck and the promise of health care (among other things) sounds a little more appetizing, even though there's a good chance you'll be facing some serious danger.

People like Tim James are incredibly brave and selfless, and I have no doubt that there are many others in the military right now who serve because they feel the same sense of duty to their country he does. But as long as they're the exceptions, as long as they're the newsworthy ones, then the wars the US wages will continue to be fought by the poorest among us, those who signed up because there wasn't much else for them.

I don't have an answer for this problem--I have some suggestions, like telling Xe (née Blackwater) and all the other private security agencies that we'll be canceling their contracts or at least not renewing them and using that money to not only give current military personnel a much-needed raise, but also to expand the size of the military so that everything is handled in-house again. No more paying Halliburton to feed the troops and do their laundry at exorbitant rates; no more paying KBR to build shoddy facilities where soldiers get electrocuted while showering--none of that crap. Given what we're paying these corporations for the crappy work they've done, we'd almost certainly come out spending less money and getting better service for it.

In the meantime, Tim James is still a brave man doing a brave thing when he didn't have to, and Dan Le Batard is right to tell his story the way he does. Those things don't change. But until we ask ourselves just why this is such a compelling story, we're never going to deal with some of our other problems as a nation.

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