As anxieties intensify in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, the nation appears ready, once again, to tap the 1% of Americans who volunteer to protect the remaining 99%. President Donald Trump authorized the Pentagon to activate National Guard and Reserve units, as well as members of the Individual Ready Reserve (those who have left active duty but are committed should they be needed) to assist with fighting the Coronavirus scourge.
Many are the same one-percenters who have endured multiple combat and/or hardship deployments during the longest period of armed conflict in U.S. history. An inductee who went to boot camp shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks is now a year away from full retirement; by now some wear the top enlisted rank of sergeant major or full-bird colonel on their collars. They served most of their careers as the military dealt with record lows in recruitment. Far too many high school seniors, as high as 70% by some estimates, were ineligible to join for one reason or another over the past several years. That raises speculation in some circles about the possible need to return to the draft. And consider that scars from the last military conscription remain barely healed because of soldiers’ mass exposure to another health-debilitating invisible enemy, Agent Orange.
Even then, on any given day somewhere in America, high school and college graduates who can meet mental and physical induction requirements are contemplating service in the Armed Forces. They likely base that decision on such factors as income, career path, education benefits, the pride of wearing a uniform, or a need to escape the doldrums of depressed socioeconomic circumstances. Many are too young to remember 9/11. They have become accustomed to news of never-ending international conflicts and casualties. Some have become desensitized to the sight of veterans in wheelchairs or with missing limbs to the point where even a perfunctory “thank you for your service” no longer feels necessary.
What we know is many of these young people will still walk into recruiting offices and give thought to serving our country. What they may not know is that America often falls short in honoring its obligation, as noted by Abraham Lincoln, to “care for him [or her] who shall have borne the battle” as they fight ISIS, face down Iran, build border walls, and now confront COVID-19.
Whether the enemy takes viral or human form, those who sign up to fight will learn quickly it’s different from playing Call of Duty on their gaming systems. There are no second or third lives. No bonus points or super weapons. Many will be exposed to the everyday hazards of military life, both stateside and abroad. If these young men and women are lucky, they will end their military journeys somewhat intact after four years, 20 years, or somewhere in between, with an honorable discharge. That day will signify an end to their part of the bargain with this country, and the beginning of our society’s part of that same bargain: health care, education assistance, home loan guaranty, life insurance, social support, and monetary benefits to compensate those who have lost some degree of or all socioeconomic viability.
The contract between America and her protectors contains no disclaimer or fine print that says “only if the budget is approved” or “provided we later deem your service worthy.” Any talk in Washington, D.C., for example, about delaying benefits for burn pit exposure, diminishing due process protections for benefits claimants, and reducing unemployability benefits for aging veterans — all of which have been the subject of controversy — amounts to a breach of contract and the very public trust that animates the desire of American citizens to serve in uniform.
Will this new state of emergency change the slow, almost imperceptible erosion of veterans’ benefits? My fear is the answer is no. Too many Americans not only appear numb to war and ambivalent about paying its profound cost but also, I believe, see no dividing line between a state of emergency and a typical day unless it touches them personally. In fact, the United States has technically existed in a state of national emergency for more than 40 years: since Nov. 14, 1979, to be exact. Executive Order 12170 endures in response to Iran’s “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” This even before the global war on terror had lulled our society into a complacency driven by overanxiety that we now see emerging in the global Coronavirus pandemic.
So we can add the novel coronavirus’s offspring, COVID-19, to an enemies’ list that claimed, as its first military casualty, Army Capt. Douglas Linn Hickok, a physician assistant with the New Jersey National Guard, who died from complications associated with COVID-19. Fear has predictably aroused the national instinct to cheer on the 1% who face the threat on behalf of the 99%. All too that 1% must remind our government to honor its part of the bargain, even as many can expect to give more than they will receive. At some point, however, we had better consider who’s watching: eligible high school and college graduates who look on, wondering if the life-changing contract will remain valid once they sign on the dotted line. This, as the men and women who once served and are now being told their country needs them again, hearing their past call and wonder if it has anything new to say.
Sherman Gillums Jr. is a paralyzed Marine Corps veteran and AMVETS Chief Advocacy Officer.
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