They sacrifice in ways most Americans will never know.
You’ve seen them in airports and train stations: young men and women, physically fit, closely barbered, wearing camouflage or tan uniforms and lugging heavy packs. They are black and white, Asian and Hispanic, Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The ones who are leaving betray a deep sadness, sometimes even fear on their faces. They keep to themselves, read books, listen to music and try to avoid eye contact. The ones who are coming appear relaxed, relieved, and eager for the embrace of loved ones and friends. They are the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen of the United States Armed Forces.
The ones you don’t see are the mothers, fathers, spouses and children of service members, the families that love, support, and too often bury them. They don’t wear uniforms with flags on their shoulders. They’re not recognizable in airports and train stations. These are the ones who patrol the home front: parents who pray and send care packages stuffed with phone cards and snacks, wives who sleep alone and work miracles with lousy paychecks, children who go to school with aching hearts. They don’t train or fight, but they do serve, though no one stops to thank them for that service. The phrases they commonly use illustrate the stakes for them: “When you go to war, my heart goes to war;” “If prayer could send you home, I’d have you in my arms.”
According to the National Military Family Association, in 2012 there were 2.2 million members of the Armed Forces on active duty or in the ready reserves. Family members amounted to another 3 million, including 1.1 million spouses and 1.9 million children, of whom the 67% were below 11 years of age. In 2012, service members and their families made up only 1.5% of the American population. That figure isn’t static, of course; people enlist in or separate from the military in significant numbers all the time.
Yet it is true that under the present volunteer system, only a small number of Americans bear the burdens of service. As retired Army general Karl Eikenberry and historian David Kennedy, authors of “The Modern American Military,” pointed out last year, “less than 0.5 percent of the population serves in the armed forces, compared with more than 12 percent during World War II. Even fewer of the privileged and powerful shoulder arms. In 1975, 70 percent of members of Congress had some military service; today, just 20 percent do, and only a handful of their children are in uniform.”
As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted in 2010, “with each passing decade, fewer and fewer Americans know someone with military experience in their family or social circle … whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans the wars remain an abstraction, a distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally.”
Unlike many other nations, the United States doesn’t have the tradition of a multi-generational military caste. That’s by design. The American founders were wary of standing armies, cautious about projecting American power abroad, and careful to preserve the principle of civilian command over the armed forces. During much of our history, grandfathers, fathers, and sons may have all served in uniform, but it was often as citizen soldiers who answered a specific call at a particular time, then retired back to civilian life. Even today, when the U.S. maintains a large standing army and navy, only a small percentage of active duty personnel are the sons and daughters of career soldiers or sailors. From the perspective of American liberty, that’s a good thing.
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