Megan Burtis, The Miami Student
Veterans Day, or Armistice Day as it was known when it was established, has been celebrated as a national holiday in the United States since 1938. Just 30 years later, a young Rodney Coates voluntarily enlisted in the Army to serve in Vietnam.
In 1968, Coates was just 19 and at a place in life most Miami students would find familiar, except for one key difference; the country was at war and his friends were the ones fighting.
“I was confused about the war and not able to justify deferment while my peers were drafted,” Coates said of why he decided to leave college and enlist.
When he returned home from the war, there was no ticker-tape parade waiting for him.
“We actually had pig’s blood thrown on us,” Coates said. “It was 30 years before I publicly displayed veteran paraphernalia, but I don’t know if that was because of the treatment we got or PTSD.”
Despite this less than heroic homecoming, Coates now understands where the critique was coming from.
“Some wars we value more than others,” Coates said. “The World Wars and Korea are almost sacred. We still have ambiguity about Vietnam and some about Iraq and Iran. There’s a difficulty distinguishing the soldier from policy. Since we can’t blame the politician, we blame the soldier.”
Today, Coates is a professor at Miami in the Global and Intercultural Studies Department, where he teaches courses on black world studies, globalization and sociology. He is also a proud combat veteran.
“Of course I am, I wouldn’t be here without it,” he said.
As for Veterans Day, Coates said “it’s a melancholy day for multiple reasons.”
He’s never had a free meal offered to veterans as part of the holiday. He prefers general and long-standing discounts for veterans as they are “more meaningful.”
So how does Coates believe we should celebrate Veterans Day? He doesn’t think we should.
“Veterans should get something tangible as a consequence for their service, not just a special day,” Coates said. “If being a veteran was meaningful, it would happen every day. We wouldn’t reserve it for one day.”
Coates views the discussion of Veterans Day from the viewpoint of larger societal issues within the United States.
“Get rid of the all-volunteer military and go back to the draft,” Coates said. “If everyone had the chance to become a veteran, we would care more about the holiday and be less likely to support frivolous wars.”
Coates doesn’t want young people to serve so they can gain a perspective on struggle, but for our society to understand the kind of toll that gaining such a perspective has taken from those who have served and who will in the future.
“Seventy percent of our homeless population are veterans,” Coates said. “Mental problems tend to fall through the cracks, and PTSD is a real thing that we tend not to know how to deal with.”
On top of these issues, Coates acknowledges that all veterans have not been celebrated equally.
“Female veterans are almost invisible, and racialized veterans are just a step above,” he said. “The image of a white male is what we constantly lift up and there are always some marginalized.”
In general, Coates wishes we didn’t have to celebrate Veterans Day because he wishes we didn’t need veterans.
“We should eliminate the necessity for veterans and create a political structure and environment where war becomes the last alternative, not the first thing we think about,” said Coates.
Although this is easier said than done, Coates believes it to be worth the effort.
“Wars are quite regular and spectacular in our history,” said Coates. “We are always in combat preparation, which results in tremendous loss and devastation. Surely we could use these resources in more meaningful and significant ways.”