First defenders of freedom: The next generation

Alex Beehler Contributor
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With May being declared National Military Appreciation Month, and with the approach of Memorial Day, it is appropriate to take stock of the role and respect of the military in American society today. It is truly a good news story.

Throughout our nation’s history, our service men and women have ably defended our country’s freedom, often under extremely adverse conditions, in far-flung locales, and sometimes paying the ultimate sacrifice. Of all our public servants, the men and women in uniform deserve our utmost respect. Yet, sadly, such has not always been the case.

The military’s nadir in the eyes of the nation was 1973. The mandatory draft, imposed as a result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and declaration of World War II, was finally abolished after two more (undeclared) wars, riddled with student deferments and other Service-avoiding loopholes. The eight-year Vietnam ordeal deflated military morale among the ranks and shrunk Congressional funding for troops’ quality of life. Vietnam veterans often became disaffected from society; the public in turn viewed the military and the Department of Defense as one of the least respected government service. This pervasive shame was manifested in the late 1970s during President Carter’s administration by a Pentagon edict that officers stationed there would only wear their uniforms on Wednesdays to be as militarily inconspicuous as possible.

In contrast today, the military at over 80 percent favorability is the highest rated government agency by the American public. While military service has been all-volunteer since 1973, recruitment levels are routinely exceeded and applications to the service academies are at all-time highs. Not only the quantity of candidates has increased; the quality has improved as well with stronger educational backgrounds. Women in the forces, which represented a small percentage in 1973, now comprise fully a fifth. During the last decade, considerable sums have been spent to upgrade the average troop’s living quarters; almost 200,000 new military units been constructed in the past five years.

Skeptics claim that the renewed interest in military careers is based more on tight private-sector employment conditions rather than newfound joy for martial life. Certainly there is some truth to that. However, it is also true that the foreign terrorists attacks of 9/11 have inculcated in a new generation of American youth that the price of our country’s freedoms is constant vigilance. Thus, there is a new willingness to serve because of (not in spite of) our nation’s prolonged struggles with terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And the public, by and large, honors and respects such commitment and service, all by volunteers. Veterans of the first Gulf War were treated to the first U.S.-based victory parades since the conclusion of WWII. The sprawling Dallas International Airport Terminal routinely is the scene for spontaneous ovations by travelers for returning U.S. soldiers, sailors, and fliers from overseas missions. Even those politicians, who philosophically are critical of the military-industrial complex, tend now to reserve public praise for military men and women.

The military is not perfect. It always faces significant challenges whether in time of war or in peace. Medical care for returning wounded from the front line and for the long-term disabled Veteran is uneven at best. Issues related to diversity, sexual orientation, and co-gender integration of mission operations are difficult to address. Training and testing to prepare for the battles of tomorrow rather than fight yesterday’s wars require constant rethinking and revamping in order for our troops to be successful defenders of America.

Yet, in 2010, we should recognize the tremendous progress our volunteer military has made since 1973 in becoming effective defenders of America’s freedoms. We are on the right track, and our country is blessed to have such great, brave young people who voluntarily serve in harm’s way to protect our liberty.

Alex Beehler is the Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Environment, Safety & Occupational Health) at the United States Department of Defense.