As The 'Civilian-Military Gap' Increases, Support For Personnel Needs To Grow
(SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE 06 JAN 13)
... Scott McGaugh
As America extracts its military from the Middle East, our active-duty personnel are coming home to an unfamiliar domestic landscape. They are returning to a nation whose warrior class is becoming more isolated, underrepresented, and potentially under appreciated. It's called the "civilian-military gap."
Americans have always responded to our nation's call to arms. As much as 9 percent of our nation's population was engaged in World War II, including one in four doctors. Today, despite the longest war in American history over these past 10 years, less than 1 percent of America today serves in the military. No war in our nation's history has been fought by a smaller percentage of our population. The military's share of the national population hasn't been this low since the 1930s. Not since the Revolutionary War has a war been fought by an all-volunteer force, leaving the vast majority of our society without a personal or family stake in battlefield casualties.
The ramifications of this gap are enormous. Our men and women in uniform are becoming strangers to most of America. In 1988, 40 percent of Americans had a parent who had served in uniform. By 2010, it had fallen to 18 percent. Most grandparents today were born after World War II. A 44-year-old today (meaning nearly all parents) has no personal recollection of Vietnam. Military service and loss on the battlefield no longer are part of the American people's personal mosaic. This extends to the highest reaches of government. Only about 20 percent of Congress has served in the military, compared with 60 percent in 1969.
For the first time in 80 years, all four of our nation's candidates for president and vice president in 2012 had no military experience. Service in uniform rapidly is becoming something for "someone else to do" as 99 percent of America goes about its business. And as we do, the military is becoming even more isolated at home as well. More than half of military housing complexes of at least 5,000 residents have been eliminated in the last decade.
Following the Cold War, 97 military installations in America were closed. With a few exceptions like San Diego, military installations now are predominantly in the South and away from major urban centers. Military leaders fear they are losing touch with America's civilians. "I fear they do not know us. I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle," Adm. Mike Mullen said in a speech last year. Robert Gates, then the secretary of defense, echoed that sentiment, noting, "But even after 9/11, the absence of a draft for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do."
Meanwhile the ranks of veterans in our society are swelling. Due to budget-driven force reduction requirements, military leaders are telling thousands of young men and women that, despite their career plans, their service is no longer required. Those men and women are looking for civilian jobs, affordable housing and new lives. These new veterans and those before them are becoming less identifiable in our culture.
Membership in military-service organizations is plummeting. Veterans of Foreign Wars membership has declined 20 percent in 20 years, and nearly half of VFW members today are at least 70 years of age. The American Legion lost 300,000 members between 2007 and 2011 and closed 160 halls. It is a sad commentary that Veterans Day parades across the country are struggling. Tallahassee organizers recently raised only $7,000 for their parade. Tucson parade organizers barely reached $10,000 in contributions. Pittsburgh parade officials were disappointed in their turnout, and in Brooklyn relatively few veterans chose to participate.
Even in San Diego, we see an almost-annual plea for donations in the weeks leading up to the parade. Will America adequately support active-duty personnel and its veterans as the civilian-military gap becomes even more pronounced in the years ahead?
Are we prepared to make necessarily difficult political decisions, some of which carry enormous economic implications? Today, the all-volunteer military competes with the private sector for America's best and brightest men and women. The Army's personnel costs doubled between 2001 and 2011 to $59.1 billion. Naval aviators receive five-figure bonus offers to re-enlist. Overall, about 40 cents of every Department of Defense dollar goes to personnel costs. Will taxpayers and voters continue to foot that bill?
The debt we owe our veterans is equally onerous. Veterans Affairs claims doubled between 2001 and 2011, with 45 percent seeking assistance for 11 to 15 medical issues. Yet some underfunded VA offices are not yet digitized. As the Pentagon plans to cut nearly 90,000 active-duty personnel next year, the demands on the VA will only increase.
Yet for all these cross currents at the national level, San Diego stands perhaps alone. As the birthplace of naval aviation and home to one of America's largest concentrations of active-duty personnel, we have the opportunity to set a national standard for the way civilian America should treat its active-duty and veteran compatriots. It is, in fact, our responsibility to do so. We can begin by supporting the nonprofit organizations that support our veterans. From AMVETS to Veterans Village, there are dozens of local veterans support groups, led by San Diegans, that need our time and treasure.
A comprehensive list can be found at the United Veterans Council website (sduvc.org). We can step forward and ensure that the San Diego Veterans Day Parade doesn't go begging for lack of financial support. Just a few organizational sponsors making an ongoing annual commitment would provide solvency and provide the foundation on which to build the finest Veterans Day parade on the West Coast.
What better place for that to happen than in San Diego? We can support our active-duty personnel and their families through such vital organizations as the Armed Services YMCA, the Warrior Foundation and others. Organizations such as the San Diego Padres that actively salute the military deserve our support. San Diegans have much to be proud of. At the top of that list should be San Diego's enthusiastic support of those in uniform, as well as the veterans who have protected the trail of freedom before them.
Scott McGaugh is the marketing director of the USS Midway Museum and the author of five books on military history.