Monday, August 29, 2016

Follow-Up on Bradshaw & the Army

I get letters.  This one is from a friend whom I'm not going to identify:

"Hey! This might be a case of filing under 'better late than never,' but while I can read your site on RSS at work, I can't comment because it blocks. Of course, when I get home, I have a ton of other things on my mind. 

"Anyways, your blog post about the rumor that Bradshaw was leaving ARMY that kind of turned into what the Service can do for you, really struck a chord with me. 

"A close friend of mine for 30 years, his Dad took us to the side when we were teenagers (he served in Vietnam) and told us that the Service wasn't for us. He basically forbid it, but considering what we had planned, we didn't fight it. 

"BUT, I often wonder, 'what if' and for a lot of the great reasons you listed. 

"Despite whether or not Bradshaw was still playing QB or attending West Point, I just wanted to let you know that your piece struck a chord and had me thinking about something that I hadn't thought about for 25 years and best of all, in a good way. 

"Glad you're having a great vacation!"

Thanks for the note.  I hear stories like this a lot, unfortunately.

Me and my dad at Airborne School in 1993.  I grew up with 
service in the family, but not everyone has that experience.
The service was A LOT different back in the 60s and early 70s, and I don't think I'm telling any secrets when I say that many Vietnam Era veterans had bad experiences and HATED their time in uniform.  This makes perfect sense.  They got drafted, they didn't want to be there, and they were fighting an unpopular war for poorly defined reasons against an implacable enemy.  What made it worse was the way that class division made Vietnam another "rich man's war but poor man's fight."  This has been true frequently throughout America's history, for better or worse.  As society itself has become more affluent, the divisions have only gotten deeper.

It's different today primarily because people WANT to serve.  They volunteer, so no one gets forced, and that makes the quality of the soldiers MUCH higher.  This changes the experience completely.  We still have those class divisions, unfortunately, and the all-volunteer force has led to a serious disconnect between the Force itself and the People that it's meant to protect, but it's still a more effective military on the whole.  It's just filled with kids who need college money now rather than with kids who get drafted because they couldn't afford to go to college.  So yeah, that's basically the same kids either way, but choosing to volunteers changes the nature of the experience substantially.

What stinks is that the all-volunteer force has made the Army something like a family business.  My own kids want to serve because they've heard about my experiences, and they want those benefits--and that self-respect--for themselves.  The Army doesn't scare them.  It's part of their family lore.  This is especially true of my oldest, Hannah.  But outside of kids who have direct experience with veterans, there's not a lot of interest in military service.  This is true regionally and at a community and class level.  The Secretary of Defense has made combating this problem one of his signature issues, and I think he's right to do so.  But it's tough, and when I mention service to people locally in Connecticut, they often look at me like I've lost my mind.  They have no experience of service, and it's therefore terrifying.

I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I think it's telling that a lot of today's young people support sending "troops" to fight in Syria but would not under any circumstances consider serving themselves.  That was the kind of attitude that led to the fall of the Roman Empire, and we seem to be developing it some 200+ years sooner than the Romans.  Common citizens often think they're "too good" to serve.  That's a socially corrosive attitude, and behold, we live in a society that is itself highly corrosive.

If I say that "people suck," most folks will just agree and move on.  How is that acceptable?

As I've said many times, there is more than one way to serve your community.  If you want my advice, I think folks should be looking for ways to serve locally.  Pretty much anyone can give blood, volunteer at the Boys Club, teach something they're good at, or whatever.  If you--or anybody else--wants to serve, then find a way and do it.  That doesn't have to be in uniform, but it does require more than getting on the Internet and posting a bunch of #hashtag-filled blog posts.  I'm teaching swimming now because I can and because people need to learn.  That's what service looks like for me at age 43.

We all have something to offer.  The question is: How do you offer it?