Those of us who have served are used to mostly empty gestures of gratitude. We hear “thank you for your service” countless times a day. We used to see yellow “support our troops” ribbons. Every once in a while, someone will buy us a beer. Ostentatious flag ceremonies at football games are just irritating. At the end of the day, we simply want our needs taken care of while we serve our country. We want sanitary military housing at military bases and stations around the country. We’d like the planes we fly and the ships we sail to receive routine maintenance. We’d like the resources to catch up with our competitors in the burgeoning cyber war.

In short, we want sustained fidelity. We don’t want to be props or pawns in President Trump’s effort to inflame a culture. Yet in threatening to veto passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) over a proposal to rename bases named after Confederate generals, President Trump has made his position clear: The needs of our troops and their families and the safety of our nation are less important than pitting Americans against one another.

While the NDAA might sound like something that matters to Washington politicians and no one else, it is — more than free beers and ovations — how we “support our troops.” The version of the NDAA that President Trump has threatened to veto would, for instance, provide a 3% pay raise. That will hardly lead to our troops living large, but at a time when military families regularly struggle to make ends meet, and when the average E1 earns just over $20,000 a year, that money means the world.

Trump’s NDAA veto threat puts a lot that our troops need at risk. For all the talk of base names, many of the actual buildings on those bases are falling apart. Reuters recently ran a series called “Ambushed at Home,” detailing the “squalid” conditions of military housing. The NDAA would address that problem. The NDAA would also enable basic safety measures on bases, like fire resistance and cleanup for environmental hazards. These are the day-to-day items that troops really need to keep themselves and their families safe.

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Speaking of which, the NDAA also provides funds to protect soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and their families from COVID-19. Specifically, it provides funds for the military to buy things like personal protective equipment (PPE) and other critical materials.

As the NDAA supports the troops, it is not – and has never been – a partisan issue. The Republican-led Senate passed the NDAA by an 86-14 vote. The fact that the NDAA has passed every year for 60 years — in this modern gridlocked Congress era — really says something.

I do not mean to minimize the issue of bases named in honor of Confederate generals. As an African American man who devoted nearly a 40-year career to God, country, and the United States Marine Corps, the idea of training at bases named after men who enslaved my ancestors causes me to pause and, in fact, makes my skin crawl. Yet regardless of where you stand on renaming bases named after Confederates, there should be no question that this culture war issue is far less important than keeping American troops safe. Base names are not forever. Lost lives are.

So, President Trump, if you really “support the troops,” as you so often say, prove it. Drop your opposition to the NDAA and give our troops what they need to stay safe, and muster the courage to protect our troops from asbestos and squalor … as expected of our commander in chief.

Willie Williams is a retired lieutenant general in the United States Marine Corps. He served for four years (2005-2009) as the commanding general of Marine Corps Logistics Command, Albany.

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