Our war veterans need practical help, not just "thanks". Especially when such gestures risk becoming swiftly tokenistic, risk embarrassing the recipient or could harm the health of those suffering psychological wounds.
Virgin Australia has offered to adopt the American custom of priority boarding for war veterans, followed by a “thank you for your service” announcement before take-off.
As in the US example, this might also involve identifying the veterans so fellow passengers can offer applause.
The proposal is problematic on several levels.
Its also symptomatic of a deeper issue. So few modern Australians now “get” their defence force, and how it should and does fit into our national community, that its no longer a surprise that such a proposal could be floated as appropriate or a good idea.
To the contrary, the initial reaction from most veterans is a clear preference for acknowledging their service with practical help, rather than a gesture that risks becoming swiftly tokenistic
In the case of airlines, why not instead reinstate the Service discount for domestic flights that was dropped in the early 1980s as memories of World War II and Vietnam faded?
Or was such practical thanks not considered because it incurs a real cost?
More generally, reform of the legislation covering veteran healthcare, and continued reform of unfair or unwieldy Department of Veterans Affairs claim processes, are surely far higher priorities than a veteran’s placement in an aircraft boarding queue.
Many, probably most, veterans are likely to soon tire of such embarrassment. The more harrowing the service the speedier the likely objection.
Veterans suffering psychological wounds risk them being exacerbated by the public identification and fuss involved. Especially if it becomes an empty ritual that simply reinforces feelings of community neglect or worse.
Priority boarding for veterans would also prompt calls for natural extensions to other worthy groups, such as police and paramedics, who undertake high-risk and life-threatening tasks on behalf of our community.
Throughout Australia, Anzac Day is when our veterans honour each other and the broader community publicly acknowledges veterans for their service.
But on the other 364 days of the year we need to provide actual help, particularly with healthcare, employment assistance and the respect that actually compensates them for their various difficulties or sacrifices.
As a society we used to understand this much better.
Unlike the mass community involvement in the World Wars, and even the wide community interest due to conscription during the Vietnam era, most Australians now have no personal experience of military service or war. Even across their extended family.
At the height of our commitment to the Afghanistan War, only about 15,000 of Australia’s 6.8m families had a member serving there each year.
Many, perhaps most Australians, no longer really understand what makes serving and former defence force personnel tick, defence issues generally or each citizen’s responsibility to consider such matters.
Fictional depictions on TV and in films tend to reinforce the problem rather than alleviate it.
In previous generations, the need to ensure veterans were adequately cared for, not just “thanked”, was a no-brainer.
Moreover, with larger numbers of veterans and their families all voting, and in communities that better understood their plight generally, governments and bureaucracies were more easily held to account by everyone.
In previous eras, a crass-to-our-ears recent American custom suggested as appropriate and translatable to Australia would not have survived any test in any Pub.
It still doesn’t.
Neil James is executive director of the Australia Defence Association.