USA TODAY US Edition
Stopping the civilian-military drift
While we commemorate our nation’s birthday this weekend — from parades and fireworks to barbecues and retail sales — it’s all too easy for us to forget the sacrifices that make it possible.
Yet for almost four million Americans, many of whom are millennials, July 4th has deeper meaning. They do not experience Independence Day as a “patriotic holiday.” On this day, and indeed every day, service members often feel separate and apart from those of us who did not share, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. described it, “the incommunicable experience of war.”
That feeling of separation, not fear of combat or hardship, is the central challenge of military life. We ask young Americans to volunteer to put on the uniform, leave their loved ones behind, launch into adulthood, conduct themselves under a strict set of laws, and perform duties in distant lands which they are often bound not to speak of or just don’t want to. While proud of their service, it is hardly a surprise they feel disconnected.
That feeling of separation is made worse by isolation. Less than 1% of our fellow citizens serve in our active military today and only about 7% of Americans living today ever served, whether in wartime or peacetime. From the 1960s to the 1990s, between 50% and 75% of Congress served in the military. Today that number is around 20% and declining.
This imperfection of the allvolunteer force manifests itself in a civil-military drift. While Americans hold the U.S. military in high esteem, 90% of service members say that the general public does not understand the sacrifices made by them and their families. Veterans feel apart from their fellow Americans.
But the impact of this drift is greater than that, it is crossing generations. A disproportionate percentage of today’s service men and women hail from military families. While nearly all veterans are proud of their accomplishments during service, only 45% of today’s service members would recommend military service to their own child. Over the longterm, the impact on our national security is clear: fewer capable young Americans willing to serve.
Bridging the civil-military drift is something each of us can do. Say something to service members, not just thanking them for their service, but finding ways to open a dialogue with those who live nearby. And do something. Find an organization that brings you closer to our military. Volunteer and support it. Get your business or church or service group involved. I guarantee you won’t regret your decision.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz reflected on his “aha” moment in his book For Love of
Country: “My visit [to West Point] revealed to me just how disconnected I had been from (those) who have dedicated years of their lives to defending the freedom I hold dear. No one in my family or my circle of friends was serving in the armed forces. ... I had never spoken to anyone in uniform. As I look back, I’m embarrassed.” Schultz channeled that “embarrassment” into his own action. Each of us can too.
J.D. Crouch II is president of the USO and former deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush.