We do not talk with them. Too often, we talk at them. We are the guest speakers, the first-pitch-throwers, the grand marshals. We show them the power of our capabilities through air shows, port visits and other demonstrations. This outreach is important, but it isn’t always a two-way street. And it doesn’t improve our understanding of the society we defend.
We tend to focus on the fact that, because so few Americans serve in uniform — something like 1 percent — they don’t understand us. There’s some truth to that. But is it solely their fault?
We are, after all, volunteers in a proportionally small military. Americans can choose to serve or not. Not everyone in the world has that option. Even among those who want to serve, there are only so many qualified to join our ranks. And those ranks are not likely to expand in this time of fiscal austerity.
Being honest with ourselves, we would admit that we have been well-resourced and fully supported by the home front. From lifesaving force-protection gear to counter-IED technology to the finest in unmanned systems and much more, the American people have — through their elected representatives — given us the tools we’ve needed to fight two wars.
They’ve also helped us find jobs when we come home. They’ve given us world-class education benefits. And they’ve helped ensure that returning troops get the physical and mental health care they richly deserve. Americans have built homes for wounded warriors and wrapped their arms around the families of our fallen. They have thanked us in airports, bus stations and parades.
They may not know us. But they certainly support us.
Of course, more can always be done to care for our troops and their families. A recent government report says we lose a veteran to suicide nearly every hour of every day. While veterans represent less than 9 percent of the population, they are about 15 percent of the homeless. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are more likely to report a traumatic brain injury and to have received mental health treatment than veterans of other wars — treatment that must continue without the stigma it carries.
According to some estimates, more than 1.5 million active-duty, reserve and National Guard troops will transition to civilian life in the next five years. We must continue to ensure that Americans are ready and willing to help them make that transition.
We haven’t been neglected or forgotten. American civilians are simply confronted by problems other than war, problems we might have difficulty understanding from the relative permanence of our profession. They are not losing life and limb on the battlefield, but they are losing their jobs, their homes, their livelihoods. They can be forgiven for being distracted and even a little tired of war.