It’s an odd time for displays of unified patriotism, but Friday was Veteran’s Day, so New York’s Fifth Avenue—where anti-Trump marches have been roiling all week—was officially closed down. For a mile troops marched in full uniform, shouting military songs in unison, or simply the letters U-S-A. Spectators wore red-white-and-blue T-shirts and star-spangled hats; they waved flags and clapped in time. It might feel like the country is fracturing this week but Fifth Ave, that day, felt like the most relentlessly American place on Earth.
Because this is New York and America, the march ended in a street fair where things were sold. Vendors hocked knock-off sunglasses, baby clothes printed with “I heart New York.” A trio of women in painfully bright sequined Navy uniforms belted the national anthem. Next to the stage, there were stalls where one could sign up for Aetna’s health insurance or join book clubs and support groups. The veteran suicide rate is still climbing; the parade has recently added a “veteran’s village,” providing support services, to its celebratory march.
I wanted to talk politics but was reminded in no uncertain terms by most men and women in uniform that today wasn’t about who’d just become the president-elect. It was about veterans, and their sacrifice. They were right. But it was unsettling to attend an event so devoid of partisanship just days after the election. Where the rest of the country is either gloating or furious, my queries were met with either defensive looks or shrugs of resignation. It's one of those counter-intuitive truths in politics that the people who may be most affected by our choice of a commander-in-chief are the ones who either can’t speak frankly or won’t often be heard. And, as I would later find, many of the issues closest to veterans' hearts weren't satisfactorily addressed by either the Democratic Party or the GOP.
Colby Bosserman, a 24-year-old member of the Air Force, had his own uniform but the nametag pinned to his breast, he told me, wasn’t his. “Too broke,” he said; he’d borrowed a buddy’s. He grinned. Bosserman liked Bernie Sanders a lot, but he didn’t seem overly concerned with this week’s election results. Sure, the military tends to skew Republican, he said, and he grew up in white-collar Staten Island, in a family that was solidly GOP. Funding for the military is generally higher when there’s a Republican in office. So sure, he’s happy they’re there, he told me. “As long as they don’t start a war.” A woman came by to photograph his company. He stood at attention for the photo op and then shook my hand.
Later that day I called other young members of the military, current and former. Most of the veterans told me they don’t really celebrate the holiday, and they were more inclined to offer opinions on the events of the last week. In the military, like the rest of the United States, there is no consensus on what the next four years hold. But Megan, a member of the National Guard in the South, describes anxiety in the ranks with whom she serves.
“For a lot of servicemembers, nothing will change” after the election, she says—but others are looking for an exit strategy on their contracts. “‘I’ve had a lot of panicked servicemembers contact me in the last few days. The majority of people who are panicking are LGBTQ people, or servicemembers of color.” She can’t say if it’s an issue of policy or a fear that the culture of the military will change that’s driving the sense of despair. But, she notes, some of the people she’s speaking to served under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, so maybe that has something to do with the undercurrent of confusion and dread.
“My biggest concern would be Trump’s lack of experience or knowledge,” says Dario DiBattista, a 32-year-old who served with the Marines in Iraq and now teaches free writing seminars to veterans. “Certainly on the campaign trail, he said a lot of braggadocious things,” but he’s worried the way Trump talks about defeating ISIS betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how modern wars are fought and won. “This isn’t World War II, where you can just line up against a group of enemies.”
DiBattista, like others I spoke to, believes there weren’t many good options for the military this campaign cycle. “On one hand, you have someone who can’t deal with national security issues, and in the military, you just don’t do that. On the other hand, you have someone who made fun of POWs and did a poor job of handling PTSD.” He thinks the community is “exhausted”; they’ve been in nebulous conflicts too long. “Unfortunately, both parties, for whatever reason, are not interested in de-escalation.” As for what will happen over the next four years, he thinks the “military is holding its breath” to find out what’s next.
Steve Brooks, a 25-year-old veteran using the GI bill to get an engineering degree, is actually relieved that Trump won; he, like many servicemembers, didn’t trust Clinton and was enraged by her poor handling of classified materials. But his time in the service, he says, made him less staunchly Republican; they may be “historically kind to the military,” he says, but after awhile it “felt more like they were pandering” to members of the force. “They have all these wars, they’re not necessary,” he says. “But we don’t want to be there…we promise to serve the people, to serve the government, but at this point we’re just tired.”
“The most pressing issue isn’t anything social,” he says. “They expect too much out of individual service members.”
DiBattista, for his part, thinks we oversimplify our sense of patriotism and duty, thanking members of the military for their service or “holding our hands over our hearts at ballgames.” Americans are very concerned with the idea of respecting our troops, particularly during election years, he believes. But not much of that translates into dealing with veterans’ affairs offices that are “glutted” and overstretched after 15 years of war, or having a real exit strategy for the troops still stationed in the Middle East.
For a while on Friday I watched the parade with a Vietnam vet dressed in head-to-toe camouflage. He wanted to talk politics, but not on the record. His social security just kicked in, thank god, so he can stop taking tickets and waiting in line at the Veterans Affairs office. As the marching band and step teams crawled by us, he waved his hands over the crowd. “All these people? They’re just stopping by,” he told me. “They’ll watch the parade for a few minutes and then it’s right over to that big Christmas tree, or Times Square.”