After World War II, the Army, Navy and Air Force were brought under a single command known as the National Military Establishment, later called the Department of Defense. As the structure changed, so too did custom. Each service celebrated its own history and traditions, but in 1949, Defense Secretary Louis Johnson asked them to set those aside in favor of a single observance called Armed Forces Day.
“Teamed for Defense” was the theme of the first Armed Forces Day, and this new unity, said President Truman, was “vital to the security of the nation.” However, there was another component to Armed Forces Day — one that would help the civilian community to understand their military, the jobs they perform, and the sacrifices they make. Armed Forces Day was created to pay tribute to those who wear the uniform of the United States.
Today, though a healthy rivalry still exists among the services, cooperation and coordination between them in pursuit of the nation’s defense is as strong as ever.
But what should we make of the relationship between America’s Armed Forces and the civilian community? The military is the most respected institution in the country, but in this protracted war, some are expressing concern about what they see as a deepening divide between the military and the public that it protects.
In a Veteran’s Day speech last November, Ike Skelton, the outgoing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, explained his concern: “I am fearful,” he said, “that a chasm will develop between those who protect our freedoms and those who are being protected.”
In a January essay, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote, “As we begin our 10th year at war, our all-volunteer force hails from less than one percent of the population, and we are based in fewer places across our country than in previous generations.” He continued, echoing Skelton’s concern: “I worry that we could wake up one day and that the American people will no longer know us, and we won’t know them.”
Since 1988, more than 100 military installations have been closed or consolidated through the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC), meaning fewer communities know and understand the military by virtue of its presence in the neighborhood.
Ours is an all-volunteer force that attracts the best qualified young men and women for an increasingly difficult and dangerous job. Lawmakers have opposed efforts to revive the draft, as military recruiters have been successful in recent years at meeting their enlistment quotas.
The active duty force is 1.4 million strong — 66 percent of them are 30 years of age or younger. More than half (55 percent) are married and 43 percent of all active duty personnel have children. As any parent knows, raising kids is a challenge, but taking care of them is even more difficult when one parent is on the other side of the world for 9, 12 or 15 months at a time.
Though we may try, most civilians have little understanding of what military families have been through these past 10 years. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, more than two million soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen, and Marines have served in dangerous places around the globe. The deployments have been long and frequent. Some troops have been sent overseas as many as five or six times, and the deployments have taken their toll in many ways.
The National Leadership Summit on Military Families reported that “service members and their families are experiencing severe strain due to wartime deployments. The length and frequency of these deployments and lack of sufficient dwell time for recovery and reintegration has no parallel in the history of the modern all-volunteer force.”
Some of the most significant challenges for families of deployed service members listed in the report were the prevalence of service members returning with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI); the need for spouses to become full-time caregivers; lack of resources for child care; and financial stress.
We can all do more to support those who protect us. Those who wish can contribute to, or volunteer for, a charitable organization that provides support to the troops. You may volunteer at a local veterans’ hospital. Establish a military support project in your church, school or place of business. Provide employment to a veteran or a veteran’s spouse. Provide child care for a military family. Make every day one of appreciation for our military, and commit ourselves to a new American unity in support of those who provide for our nation’s defense.
We should remember the words of our first president, George Washington, who said, “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 the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”
Thomas P. Kilgannon is the President of Freedom Alliance, a charitable organization that provides support to our men and women in uniform.