This week I want to return to a disturbing statistic, taken from a recent Pew Research Center survey of veterans and the American public, which I quoted in my last post. Only about half of our civilian population feels that our armed forces’ sacrifices have been greater than their own, post-9/11. I want to repeat that, as I repeated it last week – only about half. I think this reveals a bad connection, an enormous disconnect between our veterans and our communities. Of those civilians who do believe the military and their families shouldered greater burdens with their combat service, about 26% believe it to be unfair, while 70% consider it “just being part of the military”. I find that attitude very disturbing as well, and I will get back to it later in this post.
First, some good news. The survey results indicated that 96% of veterans are proud of their service, 93% say the military helped them mature, and 74% say their military experience has helped them get ahead in life. Over 80% would recommend a military career to a young person close to them. Also on the positive side, as reported by Tom Bowman of National Public Radio, the general public holds the military in “highest regard. It towers above organized religion, big business, and Congress”. The negative? Only 40% of civilians surveyed would advise a loved one, friend, or acquaintance to join the armed forces and bear the heavy burdens of military service.
Now, some bad news. Of the veterans surveyed, 44% experienced a difficult adjustment back to civilian life, 50% reported signs of post-traumatic stress, and 75% live with nightmares and flashbacks from their combat experiences. And, of the general public, only 25% say they follow the progress of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq closely, down from about 50% just a couple of years ago. Marine Sergeant Jon Moulder, interviewed in Afghanistan by NPR’s Bowman, didn’t need the Pew survey to tell him that people back home are losing interest. “We’re starting to fall by the wayside,” he feels. “This has been going on for so long. It’s America’s longest conflict running to date. Kind of like the bastard children of our generation.”
What’s happening? Why don’t these wars feel like a national experience? Paul Taylor, editor of the Pew study, observed, “We’ve never had sustained combat for a full decade, and we’ve never fought a war in which such a small share of the population has carried the fight.” According to Taylor, just one-half of 1% of the population has served on active duty in the past decade, while 9% of Americans were in uniform during World War II.
Having such a small fraction of the public in uniform this time, according to Martin Cook, a civilian professor of military ethics at the Naval War College, makes it “much more easy to deploy U.S. forces in tough environments for long periods of time because the vast majority of Americans don’t feel they have any skin in the game.” “I’ve often speculated,” Cook continues, “could we have fought wars for 10 years if this was a draftee army and I doubt it.”
These Pew Research Center survey statistics leave me with a lot more questions than answers.
Are the sacrifices of our veterans – and their families – really “just being part of the military”? Have recruits been fully able to anticipate the potential physical and psychological health risks of combat? Did they know just how bad warfare conditions would be in Afghanistan and Iraq? Did they expect multiple deployments? Did they realize how menacing it would be to police terrorists embedded within a civilian population? And, if their “job-related” stress has become debilitating, can service members “quit” – like civilians can – without long-term consequences, such as a less-than-honorable discharge?
Here are some more uncomfortable questions: Do we all agree that the 9/11 attacks – which killed thousands of innocent Americans, and targeted not only our nation but our way of life – required an armed response? Do we all believe that without our Homeland Security and foreign military commitments post-9/11 more innocent lives would have been lost on American soil? Haven’t these battles been deemed necessary by politicians on both sides of the aisle? Hasn’t our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq in fact benefitted all Americans?
Does the military serve our government, or do they serve us? Aren’t they fighting on our behalf, for our sake? Isn’t whatever happens to them in country more than “just being part of the military”, more than just their tough luck? One of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, declared in his Gettysburg Address that ours was a government created “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Are we willing to uphold this long tradition, sharing in the decisions, commitments, and obligations of our elected representatives?
I believe, as “the people”, that the government’s promise and obligation to restore veterans’ physical and psychological health post-service is our promise and obligation as well.
I know my calling: to provide health and healing for veterans and their families. To restore them to full participation in life and in their communities. To say, “Thank you for your service”, in the most practical, effective way I can. And I‘m asking, can we – can you – make a commitment to be better aware of the pressing needs of our returning veterans? Can we all make a commitment to care? A commitment to stop the disconnect?