When World War II came to a close in 1945, about 13 million service members began the transition into civilian life. Some had been in uniform for the whole four years; some, for just a few months. Some had served overseas; some had served at home. Many had been in terrible combat; many more had never heard a shot fired in anger. Many were men, many were women. There were whites, blacks, latinos, Indians, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, alcoholics, teetotalers, the illiterate, the highly educated; in other words, the whole spectrum of society. In one way or another, over 16 million Americans served during the war. For those who received an honorable discharge, the War Department issued the Honorable Service Lapel Pin, more commonly referred to as, “The Ruptured Duck.”
This pin, worn on the lapel of a civilian suit or sewn onto a military uniform, provided visible proof to all who saw it that the wearer had served in some way during the war. It ensured that veterans of every background could be easily identified, and it came to be an iconic representation of an entire generation of veterans.
Fast forward to today. A woman in her twenties or thirties walks into a VA center. She is a veteran, of any of the recent conflicts either in Iraq or Afghanistan. She may even be a decorated combat veteran with multiple tours to both countries. But she is often greeted with, “Hi sweetie, what veteran are you the spouse of?”
Today we have an entirely new demographic of veteran, due to the nature of our recent wars. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan lack conventional “front lines.” Support troops suddenly became far more involved in combat operations than once was the norm. Convoys of logistics troops were routinely targeted by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), small arms fire, mortars, and/or rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). Bases housing support personnel were hit with rocket and mortar attacks and targeted by vehicle-borne IEDs. Women served – and continue to serve – with heroism alongside their male counterparts, earning awards such as the Silver Star, and Bronze Star Medal with “V” device for valor. Not only have women been fighting in our nation’s wars, but they’ve been excelling at it. Which should be of surprise to no one.
The definition of “front lines” became a gray area, and coincided with the rise of the percentage of women in the uniformed services. According to a Rutgers study, women comprised only 1.4 percent of the total U.S. military force in 1970, right in the middle of the Vietnam War. By 2008 – as the war in Iraq was hitting its surge – they were 14 percent of the whole force. By 2014, this number had risen to 16.5 percent.
Up until last year, women were excluded from the combat arms branches of the Army (infantry, field artillery, armor, etc) even though they had been in combat through the duration of the wars on terror. This means that we will see even more women veterans in the future. In other words, the face of veterans is changing rapidly. But we have yet to see that reflected in societal acceptance of the term.
The easiest way to see this is to stop in at any of the traditional veterans service organizations, such as the American Legion or VFW. The vast majority of members will be men over the age of 50. As I have previously written, these organizations are having a hard time adapting to the newest generation of veterans. Women veterans attempting to enter these posts have an even more difficult time, sometimes encountering outright sexism and skepticism that they were able to “hack it.” Women have responded to this by either migrating to new veterans organizations – such as Team Red, White, and Blue, Team Rubicon, or Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America – or by simply staying home. Some have persevered and made inroads at local Legion or VFW posts. But no veteran who is eligible for membership of a veterans organization should be made to feel unwanted merely because of gender.
As of 2014, there were 2.5 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This number continues to slowly rise – and will rise for the foreseeable future. As the face of America’s veteran population changes, it is becoming more and more clear that we need another “ruptured duck,” another symbol of universal veteran service that will be as iconic today as the the Honorable Service Lapel Pin was for the World War II generation. What that symbol should consist of is a matter for debate, of course. In my snarky moods – which tend to be all of them – I would put forward a Rip-It wreathed in a reflective belt as my own personal favorite symbol to represent my generation’s conflicts.
But whatever the symbol might be, now is the time to begin designing it. America’s daughters and sons who have proved themselves in conflict should not have to do it again here at home.
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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.