'Military Update' columnist Tom Philpott ends 25 years of reporting for and about the military
By TOM PHILPOTT | SPECIAL TO STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 28, 2019
I’ve had the pleasure of writing for, and about, America’s military personnel, veterans and their families for 42 years, the last 25 years through this weekly news column for daily newspapers near military bases and online at military.com.
My intent always was clear and accurate explanatory journalism to military and veteran communities, the emphasis on news impacting their financial security — pay, health care, shopping discounts, retirement plans, veteran benefits.
Having turned 67, demands of a weekly deadline have grown more difficult. I also desire, while I can, to focus on other writing projects long neglected. As a result, I planned to announce in the coming weeks that I would retire my Military Update in early May, completing a 25-year run without a deadline missed.
Fate intervened. My wonderful wife, Barb, “executive vice president for everything,” as I like to proclaim, suffered a stroke while we visited friends in Mount Gretna, Pa., to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Thanks to extraordinary neurosurgeons at Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center, and the technology of a comprehensive stroke center, the brain clot was removed. Barb has fully recovered. However, a heart condition, undiagnosed since childhood, will need repair.
This then will be my final Military Update, which otherwise would cover the Department of Veterans Affairs’ decision Tuesday not to appeal the recent federal appeals court decision in Procopio, therefore allowing presumably access soon to Agent Orange benefits for “Blue Water Navy” veterans of the Vietnam War.
I want to use this last column, however, to extend a heartfelt note of appreciation to readers who might have found my coverage useful or interesting. I was blessed with a long journalism career focused entirely on news for those who serve or who supported our armed forces. It’s been remarkably rewarding.
It’s a readership pool dominated by highly trained, well-traveled patriots. On leaving service, many of them stay engaged in what occurs in Washington and around the world. What I tried to provide was news or analyses on issues they care about, issues routinely re-examined by policymakers, Congress or the courts. The task is forever challenging because our volunteer force and our veterans have been graced with arguably the most complex compensation packages ever devised.
Terms familiar to large segments of the armed forces perplex civilians: Final Pay, Redux or BRS to describe retirement plans; concurrent receipt; with-dependents basic allowance for housing; separation pay; selective re-enlistment bonuses; SBP; DIC; CRDP; Former Spouses Protection Act and so on.
To write about these topics I relied on the cooperation and patience of experts — at the Pentagon and VA, in veterans groups and military associations, on think tank scholars and legal advocates in law firms. And, of course, on the concerns of military folks, veterans, families and survivors. They turned me into an expert, if only for a week, to be able to write a fresh column confidently.
The easiest columns to write often were the most emotional because they dealt with the courage of warriors or the trials of their families. Some stories still inspire or jar me on remembering. One that a friend recalled was based on the letters of elementary school children of soldiers who had deployed multiple times in a seemingly unending war, revealing how their families coped, or didn’t.
One featured an Army Reserve trauma surgeon who as a civilian had treated gunshot victims in Camden, N.J., “murder capital” of America, and yet was stunned in Iraq by injuries to military and civilians, including children — “penetrating trauma to the nth degree … tissue destruction like nothing I’d ever seen before.”
For solace he needed solitude, anywhere he could find it, sometimes on the hospital’s roof where he would think about his family, safe and back home.
A column seven years later, with U.S. forces still in Iraq and careerists stuck with worrisome cycles of deployments, recounted the participation of another Army doctor on a panel of badly wounded veterans, discussing post-traumatic stress. It took most of the hourlong talks to understand that the surgeon on stage was not sharing her medical experiences through two violent tours in theater, but revealing her own mental wounds from the cruelty she witnessed and tried to relieve.
Some news columns can help to correct wrongs and some can even help to change laws or policies to be more equitable. I hope Military Update did that from time to time. I feel certain that almost every week, at a minimum, it educated readers on developments that could touch their lives in some way. I relied on facts, and took pains to give them context, which hopefully made the work credible.
Military folks and veterans deserve the best information available. They deserve facts, they need the truth. Therefore, I can’t close down this column without an appeal to the current commander in chief, regardless of who it might offend:
President Trump, treat troops and veterans with respect. Don’t lie about a military pay raise because “10 percent,” in the moment, just sounds better. Don’t let VA become a propaganda machine, exaggerating veterans’ gains under your watch. Don’t denigrate war heroes like John McCain who, unlike you, served and sacrificed. Don’t publicly side with a Russian dictator over your intelligence teams. Don’t label our cherished freedom of press, a foundation of democracy, as “enemy of the people.”
As a journalist, as a veteran, I’ve been appalled.
I had the honor in 2003 of attending, on assignment, the funeral mass and life celebration of Bob Hope, another wealthy celebrity with a huge ego. Mr. Hope had entertained generations of U.S. troops with his comedy. He used his ego and talent not to dishonor or divide but to elevate their spirits with USO shows far from home.
During that remembrance of Hope’s life, Mort Lachman, his longtime friend and gag writer, referred to Hope’s courage. Lachman said it wasn’t the mortar shells or stalled airplane engines or the bombing of one of their hotels that showed Hope’s bravery. It was his visits to infirmaries to meet young men with the most grievous wounds imaginable. Lachman said he personally dreaded those stops, and carried a camera to hide behind. Hope marched in, knowing the horror he would see, but also his duty as a comedian and American to ease the pain.
“Don’t get up fellas,” he would say, “It’s only me.”
And the laughter would begin.
None of us is Bob Hope. But whether we are politicians, military leaders, news reporters or fellow citizens, we owe our troops a bit of their own bravery — a commitment to the truth and a vow to be upset when the troops don’t hear it.