Forty years ago last week, our nation instituted the all-volunteer force. For 39 of those years, I’ve witnessed the dedication of our men and women in uniform. They are remarkable, and the establishment of a professional military composed entirely of volunteers is one of our nation’s finest achievements. It’s been so effective that we often take it for granted — but we should pause to think about what our military means to the people it protects.
The last decade of war has affected the relationship between our society and military. We can’t allow a sense of separation to grow between us. As the all-volunteer force enters its fifth decade, civilians and the military need to maintain the shared understanding necessary for a healthy relationship.
Together, we need to discuss who we are and what our wars mean to us. In the past, this discussion reflected the character of the war. World War II produced the Greatest Generation. The Korean War was largely forgotten and, for too long, so were its veterans. After Vietnam, our nation struggled to understand its veterans. In Desert Storm, we witnessed a fully supportive home front. Now is the defining moment in our relationship with the 9/11 veterans.
As a nation, we’ve learned to separate the warrior from the war. But we still have much to learn about how to connect the warrior to the citizen. All of us in uniform volunteered to serve, but that doesn’t make us all heroes. Many of us have seen the horrors of war, but that doesn’t make us all victims. Today’s warriors and their stories are more diverse than these simple characterizations suggest.
As citizens, we must listen to our veterans. If we do, we’ll hear stories of pride and courage, anger and pain, laughter and joy. We’ll hear of actions that humble and inspire us. We’ll also hear of moments that break our hearts. These stories accurately depict our warriors and represent the best of our nation.
Those of us in the military share responsibility for this relationship. We should tell our stories and recognize that those who aren’t in uniform might not know what to say or ask. We also have a duty to listen. Our fellow citizens may have different perspectives that we need to hear and understand.
We must also keep faith with one another. Many of our warriors have paid a high price and need lasting support. The invisible wounds of war can linger for decades, and physical wounds often require long rehabilitations. All our veterans deserve the opportunity to contribute to society once out of uniform.
We owe much to our veterans and their families, but we shouldn’t view all proposed defense cuts as an attack on them. Modest reforms to pay and compensation will improve readiness and modernization. It will help keep our all-volunteer force sustainable and strong. Keeping faith also means investing sufficient resources so that we can uphold our sacred obligations to defend the nation and to send our sons and daughters to war only with the best training, leadership and equipment. We can’t shrink from our obligations to one another. The stakes are too high.
We must also remember our shared American values. Those of us in the military don’t have a monopoly on service or sacrifice. We need to guard against suggestions that we deserve admiration because we volunteered to serve when others didn’t. We are an all-volunteer force, but we are not all who volunteer.
Service has always been fundamental to being an American citizen. Across our country, police officers, fire fighters, teachers, coaches, pastors, scoutmasters, business people and many others serve their communities every day. Military service makes us different, but the desire to volunteer permeates every corner of America.
Nevertheless, we can’t let our force become disconnected. We must guard against letting military service become a job for others. Children of those in the military are far more likely to join than the children of those who aren’t. And young men and women in some areas never even consider the military as one of many ways to serve our nation.
Some fault lies with us. It can be tempting to stay on our bases and talk only to those we know. But we didn’t stop being citizens when we put on the uniform. We came from small towns and big cities across our country, and we’ll all go back one day. Civilians aren’t an abstraction; they’re our parents, grandparents, siblings and friends.
Our nation has met similar challenges before and succeeded. We sometimes forget that a volunteer force is normal in American history and that the draft is the anomaly. Since the Constitution was signed, conscription was used for only 35 years. Except in times of great crisis, we have relied on a tradition of selfless service.
The all-volunteer force continues that tradition. It has served our nation well for the past 40 years. To do so for the next 40, we’ll have to work at it together.