Having Your Cake and Eating it Too: Oscar the Grouch and Veteran Branding

Last week it was revealed that the Philadelphia VA compared disgruntled veterans to Oscar the Grouch in an internal training presentation. Some veterans voiced their displeasure at being compared to a fictional, grumpy, homeless green monster by changing their Facebook/Twitter avatars to an image of Oscar the Grouch and using the hashtag #iamoscar. Mostly, it received disinterested yawns from veterans who saw this as par for the course when it comes to their VA experience.

"Has anyone ever compared you to Oscar the Grouch?"  "Nah, nah man, shit man, nah. I do believe.

“Has anyone ever compared you to Oscar the Grouch?” “Nah, nah man, shit man, nah.”

My take: being compared to Oscar the Grouch kind of feels in line with somebody saying they’re having “a case of the Monday’s.” It seems like something a peppy human resources person would say in a training presentation, probably at the VA. It’s not terribly offensive, just lame.

There is a double-standard though, when it comes to veteran indignation. On one hand, we get angry when we’re all called heroes, we’re depicted as crazy, or compared to Oscar the Grouch. On the other hand, we’ll lose our shit if someone says we’re not all heroes, chuckle and blame minor outbursts on latent PTSD, and buy t-shirts that label us a “Dysfunctional Veteran.”

The common denominator, it seems, is that veterans as a whole are okay with making categorical statements about ourselves, when it serves our interests, but don’t like it when others – mostly civilians – chime in and have something to say that we don’t like.

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of giving one group of people exclusive rights to say this or that thing. It’s exclusionary and it shuts down dialogue.

From a PR standpoint, comparing veterans to anything other than golden pillars of freedom is unwise. But the harm done with the Oscar the Grouch thing is minimal, compared to the stream of harm we do to ourselves by “owning” labels that are derogatory or condescending.



8 thoughts on “Having Your Cake and Eating it Too: Oscar the Grouch and Veteran Branding

  1. I truly never knew that calling all those who serve heroes was considered wrong. I am new to your blog and am not meaning to offend or overstep i feel a lot of people myself included just desire a way to show gratitude and support.


    • Welcome to the blog then! No worries, a lot of the stuff being written here is pretty deep niche stuff in the military/veteran world. If you’re new to that, some of it might be strange. But all of these blog posts are conversations that are being picked up that started 5,000 years ago.


  2. Okay, this is going to be long. My feelings on this are complicated. I think most veterans treat their experiences as part of their personal history and the fact of their being veterans as incidental to their continuing lives- at least the ones that I know. I’ve definitely gotten into it with ideologically challenged veterans who both insist on being identified as heroes for whatever reason, but then in the same breath deny the basic rights they enjoy in a socialized organization to the citizens of the country they’re supposedly fighting to protect. That math works out to “I can risk my life, and kill foreigners, and that makes me a hero” and it really deeply disturbs me that someone within that structure would rationalize that sense of entitlement in such a simplistic way. To my way of thinking- that’s the job. If you’ve gone into the armed forces with the expectation or intention of being able to put on your hero hat afterwards and parrot aphorisms, then maybe you need a different kind of rehabilitation.

    Conversely, there is a generational element to the comparison being made. I’ve seen a lot homeless Vietnam veterans, met a few draft dodgers after I moved to Canada, and the best teachers I’ve ever had have been Vietnam vets. I’ve also met Vietnam veterans in unexpected places in my own personal tour of hospitalization and homelessness. I think in that respect the speculation about representation is beside the point- and I think that writ large with seriously disadvantaged folks. It’s helpful to have awareness and empathy, but it doesn’t compare to a hot meal or the right psychiatric medication instead of the cheapest, oldest one on hand. I guess my problem with the idea of applying labels, whether in the larger social paradigm or within the internal dialogue is the trivialization of harm reduction.

    On one hand, you’ve got the midwestern American dude bro who imagines himself in his very own recruiting commercial, and then you have a whole generation that was bullied and shamed into going into war, and then bullied and shamed for participating in war. Regardless of the double standard (everyone who has a specific shared experience that defines them as an individual does) I can’t help but wonder why the folks at the Philadelphia VA are cracking wise rather than examining the practical implications.


  3. I really like your blog because it’s always thought-provoking. My husband is an Iraq veteran, so I have a few thoughts/responses to this article.

    First, on the (hopefully) somewhat humorous side, for my husband in particular – just him, not generalized to any other veteran – he and I regularly use the analogy of Oscar to describe my husband’s occasional demeanor. Reading this did make me give one little chuckle. For us, it’s really more my loving way of telling him that he needs to lighten up a little bit sometimes or that he’s being difficult. It’s never meant as an insult, but a loving nudge that he sometimes lets the world get him down. That the VA used it to generalize some message (I’m not sure what), is a bit insulting, or at the very least, demonstrates a lack of respect by reducing an entire population of individuals to a fictional children’s character outside of any context on those individuals.

    Second, regarding the callout to the “Dysfunctional Veterans” group/label and the final comment about the “…stream of harm we [veterans] do to ourselves by “owning” labels that are derogatory or condescending.” – I respectfully disagree in the sense that it may be your interpretation that label (or others you were undoubtedly alluding to) is derogatory or condescending, but this is again an example of the importance of context. My husband follows and identifies with the DV stuff on Facebook and righteously sports a t-shirt with the label. Is it perhaps confusing or off-putting for civilians and even other veterans? Probably.

    Here’s the thing though: men and women who have served and seen combat are different from us civilians. Period. As close as we (civilians) are to these people, as much as we love them and share lives with them, we will never fully understand that experience. I humbly admit that. What I do understand though, is the impact that experience has had and continues to have on my husband’s personality, life, and outlook. I’m willing to grant a little latitude to veterans to not only claim labels that may be controversial, but also to claim a double standard with regard to their use. Yes, my husband is a Dysfunctional Veteran, but only he has the right to claim or apply that label to himself. THAT’S why I find the VA’s comparison to Oscar, or any other generalizations about veterans, to be offensive and potentially derogatory; not because veterans themselves sometimes claim labels which are misinterpreted by others.

    Just my opinion, and it’s sincerely meant with all due respect. I revere all those who are serving or have served, but I also respect that it shapes you all in different ways. This is just my little corner of the universe with the veteran with whom I share a life.


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