CHARLESTON, SC – Jody Siever spends his Friday nights like so many American servicemen and women, mingling while kicking back drinks at a local bar. Recognizing the giveaway military haircut of a fellow patron, he approaches with an arm extended.
“Welcome home, soldier.” Smiling, though apparently puzzled, the stranger returns a firm, brief handshake.
“Thanks, but I'm in the Navy. And I haven't been anywhere—I'm in Nuke School,” he replies, referring to the Naval Nuclear Power Training Center in Goose Creek, S.C.
“That's cool,” Siever says, “I almost thought about joining the Navy for a while, but if I did join the service, I would have gone into the Army. I'm just kind of hardcore like that. Shooting bad guys in the face—that's the life for me. If I wanted it.”
Siever, you see, never actually enlisted.
Veteran servicemembers often find it difficult to relate their experiences in the military to friends and family back home, but a new civilian organization is working to expand that exclusive brotherhood. The Bros Before Joes campaign, established in 2011, seeks to legitimize the efforts of people like Siever, whose commitments to serving in the military range from the hypothetical to the nearly realized.
“We've got guys from all over the spectrum here. Some of our members, they merely thought about joining the Army a few times, or took the ASVAB in high school to get out of first period,” explains BBJ founder Trent Bower. “Other guys though, they got as far as making appointments to go to MEPS [Military Entrance Processing Station], but then something important came up.”
A near-Marine himself, Bower recounts his own brush with fate:
“I talked with a Marine recruiter a few times in high school, even attended a couple of pool functions at the recruiting office. It got to the point that I was there so often, the recruiters even started calling me 'Boot.' They were practically begging me to enlist, but I always knew I was meant for something more meaningful."
Bower, a 31-year old assistant manager at a successful pizza delivery franchise, started the Bros Before Joes campaign in his spare time, seeking to bring recognition to others who share his story. For Siever, and thousands of almost-soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines like him, the organization is a long-overdue ray of hope.
Says Siever, “It's great, you know, to finally be able to reach out and connect with others who share your non-experiences. After giving so much, dedicating so much time and energy to thinking about enlisting, it just feels like we're finally getting the thanks we deserve.” And recognition has been swift in coming.
Thanks to a successful joint-lobbying campaign with the Almost Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a bill is now before the Senate to approve Veteran's Affairs benefits for BBJ and AIAVA members. The resolution received overwhelming bipartisan support in a House vote earlier this year from a majority of US Representatives who are themselves non-veterans.
Regarding the passage in the House, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) released this statement:
“This isn't a Red-or-Blue, liberal-versus-conservative issue. It's about giving near-veterans like me and many of my constituents the recognition we've been denied for far too long.” Currently, 345 out of 435, or roughly 80% of members of the U.S. House of Representatives, have no recorded military service.
As the bill nears the Senate floor, however, some opponents are voicing concerns. Senator and Navy veteran John McCain (R-AZ) held a press conference outside his home in Phoenix, Arizona on Tuesday, calling the bill “a mockery... of all that I hold dear.” He also stated that he would “rather tongue-kiss Jane Fonda” than vote to approve the measure. Before he could take questions, he had to be ushered away for medical treatment when blood began seeping from his clenched fist—reportedly from clutching his Silver Star too tightly.
And he's not alone. Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-HI) is an Army veteran of World War II and presently the only serving member of Congress to have earned a Congressional Medal of Honor. When presented with the bill's full text, Sen. Inouye declared it “a perversion of our American values,” and refused to touch it, even with his prosthetic arm. Said Inouye, “I don't want to live on this planet anymore.”
Despite these protests, the bill has mass appeal with civilians and near-veterans on both sides of the aisle. Arguments will begin in earnest when the Senate reconvenes next January. Until then, it's a long wait for near-heroes like Siever and Bower.
Asked if he would do anything different given the opportunity, Bower harkens back to his non-Marine days:
“I just couldn't leave all of this behind. I miss those pool functions, though. They were good times; some of the best times of my life. You just... you go through something like that, almost sacrificing so much, with such a close group of guys, and it really makes you brothers, you know? I even think I still have some recruitment brochures around here, somewhere.”