Brady comments reflect growing disconnect about military life

On Veteran's Day, it's worth thinking about what soldiers, vets go through

EVERY DAY, as I walk by my bedroom’s threshold, I can see the autographed picture of Tom Brady throwing a pass in Super Bowl XXXVIII and I am reminded, by all accounts, how much of an unabashed fan I am of the greatest quarterback of all time.

The NFL superstar, a sure-fire future Hall of Famer, was directly responsible for bringing the New England Patriots fandom 20 years of joy, excitement, and, most importantly, six Super Bowl trophies. Watching him lead the New England Patriots each Sunday provided me with wonderful opportunities to bond with my sons as they grew. His performance on the field epitomized greatness in the face of countless challenges, and his exploits as a team leader have rightly afforded him legendary status among all those who study and value leadership.

Tom’s leadership style in particular earned him fans among us here in the New England region – his relentless mantra of calm steadiness, doing your job with excellence, and exerting maximum effort for the good of the team. Who couldn’t get behind these ideals?

As a father, and as a military service member – being an officer especially – I found these traits to be inspiring, compelling, and true to my values. Beyond the “try your hardest” ethos and the “practice makes perfect” discipline that his leadership style evoked, it was the team-first attitude that resonated most with me. Honor and courage to persevere through challenges was more than an unrealized pursuit – it was an expectation for all his teams and, most of all, for himself.

Which makes his recent comments comparing the grind of NFL life to a military deployment all the more disappointing and, ultimately, educational. I am not here to pile on to the criticism that he rightly faced in the aftermath of these comments – after all, I am not one to kick anyone when they’re down. While I was undoubtedly agitated and dismayed by these sentiments from Tom Terrific, I found myself reflecting on these comments and why he said them in the first place.

Any reasonable person observing Brady and his very public tribulations recently can relate to his feelings of utter frustration and, at times, outright exhaustion. In what was probably a moment of exasperation –or more likely, a moment of wanting sympathy – he resorted to using what many in the public sphere have used to punctuate a point: He used a term associated with the military to glorify a circumstance, to inflate the gravity of a situation, to elevate a challenge by using it in the context of war.

Now, I am not admonishing him for using a common turn of phrase in our modern language in an effort to “cancel” him – after all, our language and expressions are abundant with the references to war and military life. For instance, I am feeling “under the gun” in the self-realized pressure to get this message out effectively and by a certain deadline.

And no doubt, many others defending Brady would put forth this excuse for his “unfortunate choice of words.” In a society where cable news networks gather political pundits before elections and professional sports teams gather personnel executives into a room before a draft and both are called “war rooms,” one can see the continuing evolution of this fetishizing of military terms and concepts to describe common, everyday practices. Interesting and notable in that the former the stakes are viewer ratings, and the latter is whom to select in the third round of a college draft — not a strategic discussion about the potential of lives of service members going directly towards harm’s way.

Before I am accused of excessive pearl-clutching in the face of an increasing use of military metaphors to describe hardships  — particularly in the NFL, where 300-pound men colliding with one another is described as being “in the trenches” – I am shining a light on what is an unfortunate truth. Tom Brady’s words reflect a growing disconnect between the general public and its understanding of what it means to live a military life, both as a service member and, perhaps more poignantly, as a member of a military family. Brady represents the reflection too many in our society see in the mirror when it comes to truly understanding what military members and their families endure – and not just during a deployment, but in their everyday lives.

Brady’s use of these terms don’t just diminish the actual significance of the sacrifice service members and their families undergo (they do), they demonstrate the widening gap in understanding between military families and their civilian neighbors about what military life actually entails.

In the New England area alone – where Brady spent 90 percent of his career – there are over 600,000 service members, veterans, and Department of Defense personnel members who call the region home. While the vast majority of these service members can relate to his sentiment around the challenges of deployments – time away from family, constant pressure to perform duties in a scrutinized environment, channeling focus and energy into a singular mission at the sacrifice of other priorities – his comparison only holds water in the same way that helmets prevent concussions – does it work when something really hard hits?

Not to put too fine a point on this, but the fact that NFL players make millions of dollars and have the resources to rectify or address life’s daily challenges makes this comparison laughable. When I deployed to Afghanistan in 2018, at the beginning of my journey there was a banking clerical error that meant my modest military pay – less than what I was making in my civilian role, by the way – was held up for months. I had to navigate this while being transported in cargo planes to Qatar, where commercial internet connectivity had the same chances of working as a Hail Mary pass. My family, left without me for the foreseeable future, had to make do with this gap in income as I tried to sort this out in between briefings about the most likely areas that Al Qaeda and ISIS would target US and NATO troops in the area I was heading.

This is not an exercise in bellyaching about the sacrifices military members make – it is clear and understood to most what we are signing up for. Nor is this a harsh attempt to shame anyone who doesn’t fully grasp the nature of military life. It is an attempt to bridge this gap in awareness by painting a picture for our communities to see, and hopefully, understand.

I am sure my deployment experience differs from others’ – like a typical NFL game, each one unfolds and evolves differently. Furthermore, it should be understood that service members raise their hand to serve their country and come from all walks of life. (In an interesting turn of irony, service members aren’t currently “drafted” as they are in the NFL now.) Last year, across all service branches, there were just under 200,000 service members deployed outside the US, with roughly 40,000 of those in classified active combat missions. These service members aren’t all from active duty – many are reservists or National Guard members called up for a specific mission.

What is consistent, however, is the amount of grit and personal resilience that all service members and their families need to muster in order to perform their duties and function in their roles. Moreover, this is most often a dynamic that affects entire families’ lifestyles, and the stakes are wholly different. It’s important to note that deployments are just one segment of a service member’s and their respective families’ existence – very often their day-to-day lives are microcosms of what deployments can feel like: battling things out of your control, often in a new environment, with only the support of your immediate unit members and their families. And sometimes not even that.

On average, active-duty members and their families “PCS” (permanent change of station) every three years or so – more frequently here in the New England area due to the nature and duration of assignments. Surely, people of a certain generation have heard the term “military brat,” but many do not know the origin of the term. It’s actually an acronym that dates back to the American Revolution. When spouses and children were granted permission to accompany their British military members to an assignment, they were referred to as a “British Regiment Attached Traveler,” or BRAT. Perhaps we should devise a new acronym term, one where it honors the grit and resilience that military children HAVE to develop in order to survive and thrive.

Imagine a lifestyle where you are forced to change where you live, who you are connected to, and, often, what your assignment will be – all while bringing your family in tow, while paying up front and out of pocket for moving expenses as you wait months for reimbursements (hopefully). But for people like Brady, or even folks who are not multi-millionaires, these facets of military life are largely unknown, or ignored.

Blue Star Families, a national organization with local chapters dedicated to serving and supporting military families across the country, produces an annual report (the Military Family Lifestyle Survey, or MFLS) from surveys taken by thousands of military families, service members, and other relevant stakeholders each year. This report is one that every person who isn’t aware of the real challenges of military life should read. It identifies issues that help spur a greater understanding of how we all can help military families during their service to our nation.

One area identified in this report (among others) would likely surprise many. The world’s largest and most expansive military enterprise has a growing issue that is becoming one of the single most challenging aspects of modern-day military life: food insecurity. For many junior members, moving from one area of the country to another where the cost of living is double – but your military pay stays the same – results in service members having to make decisions on where to prioritize their resources.

Surprisingly, in recent years the survey results have indicated that military and military-connected families in the New England area don’t always feel welcomed in their communities. Only 36 percent reported that they felt their neighbors truly appreciate the sacrifices they’ve made as military family members. Only 18 percent felt as though their communities truly understood what the sacrifices are or have been. Less than half (40 percent) feel a sense of belonging in their respective communities.

As a social worker, I am gratified that Brady has also spoken out about the need for good mental health care. Statistics for military and veteran suicide rates remain at unacceptable levels across the country, disproportionate to the rates within the general population. Having someone of Tom Brady’s stature speak about this important health issue will surely help destigmatize long-standing biases against mental health treatment. Now, it’s the hope that this backlash against his deployment comments sparks a dialogue to help demystify what it means to serve as a military family right now.

I began writing this piece on October 26, which happened to be National Day of Deployed. It is my hope that many will read this ahead of our upcoming Veterans Day holiday, if for no reason other than to have a better understanding of what service members’ commitment and devotion to our country has been. Want to find the best way to honor a service member and their family? In addition to thanking them for their service, welcome them to your community. As you can imagine, it is hard to feel truly appreciated when you don’t feel particularly welcomed or understood. We all want to feel included and embraced by our local communities as contributing members. Providing more than a platitude – such as a regular check-in to see how they are doing – can often mean the difference for a military family and their service member. Connection and support are commodities that all communities can afford to provide.

Make no mistake – most military members, especially myself – undertake this lifestyle willingly and in passionate service to our country. It is considered by most an honor to put on the uniform, and our families are the ones who enable this service. Challenges, including those wrought by deployments, are part of the deal.

During a deployment, service members are taught to have laser focus on a few straightforward goals: perform your role well, keep yourself and your unit members safe, return home alive and well. Increasingly, this mindset now also pervades many of our service members and their families day-to-day. Except the goal isn’t to win a football game – it’s to provide the best service to our country.

Jeffrey Chin is executive director for Blue Star Families of New England. He is an adjunct faculty member of the Boston University School of Social Work, and is a lieutenant commander in the US Navy Reserve.