By Ray Starmann
Since 9-11, and the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been an out-pouring, almost a hemorrhaging of support for the troops. From yellow ribbon and American flag car magnets to endless media coverage of the military; the public it seems, is in love with the troops. There are endless tributes to the military at sporting events and the term, “thank you for your service” has become as common as “Merry Christmas.”
But, is the public really in love with the military? Do they really support the troops? Do they even care? Is saying thank you for your service and a car magnet, some kind of psychological Band-Aid for the majority of Americans who will never serve and have no desire to serve? Is this their idea of true patriotism?
Are “support the troops” and “thank you for your service,” just hollow phrases, or worse have they become clichés?
During World War II, 16.1 million Americans served in the Armed Forces. The country was mentally, spiritually and physically behind the war effort 110%. Everyone had some vested interest in the nation’s participation in the global conflict. If you would have told a soldier back in 1944, “Thank you for your service,” he would have politely said, “Well, thanks, but everyone is serving.” And, everyone practically was.
The Vietnam War was a different story entirely. In many ways, it was the beginning of the giant schism in American society between the military and the public. Even though there was a draft, wealthy kids could stay in college on deferment after deferment, while others who couldn’t afford college or who didn’t have the brains or the desire to attend a university, were subject to the draft and a ticket to Southeast Asia.
The result: a gigantic cultural divide between the mainly blue collar military and the public who gradually began to blame the war on the troops and began to lash out at the brave men who fought in Vietnam.
Fifteen years after Saigon fell, the US military found itself in another conflict. During the Gulf War, the American public renewed its love affair with the troops, by lavishing them with countless care packages, Any Serviceman Letters and boxes of sunscreen. As the packages arrived, the Vietnam vets looked on in silence. They didn’t know what to think of this outpouring of love by the public. As one Vietnam vet said to me in the desert, “Enjoy it now, cause they can turn on you any minute.”
But, the American public didn’t turn on the military. The victory in Desert Storm was also a soul cleansing for the public’s treatment of the troops during the Vietnam War. Through our victory in the Gulf War, the country had finally made peace with the Vietnam veterans.
While the public now loved the military again, their love didn’t go so far as actually joining the military.
Today, in 2015, only seven percent of the current population or roughly 22 million people are veterans. Less than one percent of the nation currently serves in either the active duty military or the reserves or National Guard. And, only 1.1 million World War II veterans are still with us.
The schism between the military and the public that began during the Vietnam War is bigger than ever.
For too many Americans, the military is something completely off limits, something for other people to do and to experience. Many baby boomer parents, who have invested twenty years in coddling their millennial kids, have no desire to send them into the military, when college beckons.
The public has almost a schizophrenic view of the military. On one hand, most people have no interest or desire to serve, yet most Americans claim that they “support the troops.”
Supporting the troops means more than standing at attention with a bucket of KFC during the National Anthem.
Supporting the troops means more than having a yellow ribbon or US flag magnet on your car.
Supporting the troops means more than watching Apache gunship footage on You Tube and fantasizing that you’re experiencing combat.
Supporting the troops means doing things like volunteering to help wounded vets or working for veterans’ organizations.
Supporting the troops means getting to know people in the military or veterans. Many employers say they love hiring veterans, but in truth, many hiring managers are scared of vets. They think all vets have PTSD. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lack of knowledge about the military by the public breeds ignorance. I remember applying for a job as mortgage broker. The hiring manager accidentally CC’d me on an email she sent her boyfriend with my resume attached. She told her boyfriend that, “This guy’s military background is really scary.” Obviously, to the public, having served in Army Intelligence must be a show stopper. If the public knew anything about the military, which they don’t, she would have known that Army Intelligence is more like MASH, and rarely ever like the Bourne Identity. Needless to say, I never got an interview there…
Supporting the troops means having some respect for the dead on Memorial Day weekend and not treating it like it’s just a four day boating and barbecue extravaganza.
Finally, supporting the troops means asking what you can do for your country. If you don’t want to be on active duty, then join the reserves or the National Guard, or even the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Work for the USO. Do something. This country is not a 24/7 free ride of endless Kardashian episodes and Nintendo games.
Veterans are the buffer zone, the middlemen and women, who can and should educate civilians about the military and more importantly about service to this country.
Only then, when the public is educated about the military or has some link to it, will “support the troops” and “thank you for your service” become more than just empty platitudes.”