On Veterans Day, we symbolically repaid the debt we owe our troops. I believe, however, that we have a heavier debt to pay now than in the past because our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are volunteers. Conscription ended in 1975.
Yes, we have a moral obligation to demonstrate our gratitude for the sacrifices of our warriors. But there is another important reason for showing our gratitude, one that gets little attention in the media.
"To suggest that efforts to support our veterans with meaningful jobs and education are based solely on repaying a debt is both limited and dangerous," wrote Mike Haynie and Robert Murrett for the Christian Science Monitor. "Instead, it's critical for policymakers, politicians, and most important, the American public to understand that the support and care of wounded warriors, veterans and military families is also a national security imperative if the United States is to maintain an effective all-volunteer force."
Haynie, a former U.S. Air Force officer, is executive director and founder of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. Murrett is a retired vice admiral in the U.S. Navy, former director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and deputy director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University.
They argue that the efforts of the various branches to attract new service members may fail if potential recruits continue to see today's veterans return from battlefields only to struggle to find jobs, medical care and affordable housing.
And what are potential volunteers to think when they hear of hundreds of veterans committing suicide each year? Who will believe the ads promising the "good life" for having served the nation?
Haynie and Murrett point out that the National Security Strategy, the comprehensive blueprint for protecting the nation, has determined that all of our resources are crucial to national security. Our troops are a vital resource. Therefore, we must rededicate ourselves to supporting them and their families.
Our national defense depends on such a rededication. No wounded warrior should go untreated or have to fight yet another war — this one against their government — to get proper treatment.
Fortunately, many top lawmakers and other officials in Washington understand that supporting and caring for our veterans plays an essential role in our defense. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, for example, conduct regular meetings on the welfare of veterans and their transition to civilian life. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama asked Congress for additional funds to streamline the disability evaluation system and other programs.
The bad news is that polls consistently show that the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have soured Americans on military involvement in costly foreign operations of choice. Large numbers of Americans have grown inured to constant images of severely wounded service members and funerals. Few Americans, except the families of the troops, make personal sacrifices, and most of us do not see any direct link between the faraway fighting and our lives.
Military service has become more of an abstraction than a duty we all share. It was not always this way.
"Many of us came of age under the watchful guidance of the 'greatest generation,' a generation of veterans supported by citizens and communities that intimately understood the role that those veterans had played in our national defense," Haynie and Murrett wrote. "That same understanding doesn't exist today .... Public discourse related to the support of our veterans and military families must be broadened to include how and why supporting our returning veterans with jobs, health care, education, and community is a duty and responsibility that goes far beyond repaying a debt.
"It's about keeping us safe, and paying forward on an obligation to future generations of Americans."
Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times. Email: [email protected]