The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by our nation. — George Washington
President George Washington’s proclamation that a nation will be judged by how it treats its defenders—meaning its veterans – seems not only prescient but apropos in our current day and age. The judges who matter most are the young people who will be tomorrow’s defenders, and their judgment will inform their decisions to raise their right hands, take the oath and fight for their country. Or choose not to serve.
Nine percent of the American population made the decision to fight for their country after Pearl Harbor, the first historic attack on the homeland in modern history that pulled the U.S. into World War II. Compare that to less than one percent of the population that served after the second historic attack on the homeland on September 11, 2001. The gulf between then and now, regarding the collective willingness to serve, begs a few questions: Have we simply become a less patriotic nation? Or are we just more cynical, given how military service is depicted and perhaps devalued today?
Some reports suggest that along with a cook, mail carrier, corrections officer, and taxi driver, any enlisted military occupation is considered among the worst jobs in America. The speculated reasons are stress, work environment, emotional factors, income level, and career prospects. Assuming this is true—or even just perceived to be true by young people—it’s no wonder the allure of military service has diminished. The numbers tell the story as evidenced by the ninety-nine percent of America who didn’t serve after 9/11 and ninety-three percent of which have never served in the military in any era. The fact is, most U.S. citizens have decided not to serve in uniform.
And, why should they? They are inundated with perpetual bad news about life in and after the military. Veteran suicide, veteran unemployment, veteran homelessness, delayed access to VA healthcare, delayed receipt of VA benefits, military sexual trauma, scandal in the military, the long-term effects of Agent Orange, burn pits, Anthrax vaccinations, Camp Lejeune water contamination and rampant post-traumatic stress are among the persistent headline-grabbing issues. All this has made it hard to see an upside to joining the military for the kid who was born on or soon after September 11, 2001, and will be old enough to join the military next year.
Here’s what that young person will likely not know, however. While our government faces many problems in how it administers benefits and healthcare to veterans, many veterans, because of their military service, enjoy financial security, have good educations, possess strong work ethics, and receive excellent healthcare. Veterans are also generally well-regarded by their local communities and receive many city and county benefits, such as property tax exemptions, college tuition assistance and even dedicated parking spaces in some areas for Purple Heart recipients. Veterans also regularly benefit from random acts of kindness by strangers in the form of upgrades to first class on flights, anonymously paid dinner tabs, and a simple “thank you for your service” by citizens who don’t care what you look like, what your politics are or the number of military decorations you’ve earned. All that matters is their service.
Veteran status is one of the few stations in American society where race, religion, and gender are eclipsed by merit and character of service. Most importantly, to become a veteran, one must pass tests of will, character, selflessness, and dedication unlike any other occupation, and is rewarded with a lifelong badge of honor that is coveted by many, yet earned by few. It is the one place in society where the term “hero” is least likely to be an exaggerated characterization, whether one served as a cook or a general in harm’s way.
For the record, I don’t believe we are a less patriotic society. Nor are we smarter simply because fewer Americans choose to avoid the perceived pitfalls of military service. Americans are content to love our troops because most citizens don’t have to be those troops. That’s fine, I suppose, as long as we are willing to reward those who choose to run toward the sound of danger—repeatedly, in many cases—so others never have to. It is that reward, in the form of benefits, good quality of life, social standing and respect that will ensure future generations of Americans will value military service enough to endure its rigors.
To that end, America must build on that value with each new generation by treating veterans well. It’s not just the right thing to do; it is the best recruitment strategy for the future of our nation’s military.
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