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In Praise of Military Families
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.
But even in the absence of a professional military caste, it is also true that over the decades some families contribute more to the defense of this country than others, and it’s fair to ask why that is. Military service instills discipline and leadership qualities in a person. It trains the mind to focus on objectives and the body to work with others in a team. It offers experiences – from firing a tank main-gun to watching a jet grab the cable on the deck of a ship – that are impossible to replicate in civilian life. Military service provides many young people with the structure and the skills they need to succeed in life, including a code of honor: I will not lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those who do. And if their service includes war, they also gain sobering lessons in moral and physical courage.
Fathers – mothers, too, but mostly fathers – pass along stories about military service to their sons and daughters. They relate what they learned about life, and how they learned it. Growing up, their children know that dad did something challenging at a young age, that he was part of a special group of people, that he served his country with honor. When they’re older, those children very often want the same things for themselves, and so they think about enlisting. Some do and some don’t; but all the sons and daughters of veterans know how central the military experience was to their fathers and families.
American military families bear the nation’s burden with a grace and patriotism that should give us great pride. What they ask in return is decent pay and housing, adequate care when warriors return from battle, and the respect of their fellow-citizens. That respect includes not just the now-ubiquitous phrase, “thank you for your service” – which, frankly, many servicemen and women find a bit too facile and formulaic – but more importantly a commitment by the nation not to spend their lives casually or in pursuit of goals other than the defense of the Constitution of the United States. They are willing to sacrifice; it goes with the job. But they want those sacrifices to be in causes worthy of the loss they risk or endure.
This July 4th, say a prayer for military families, that God will give them strength in their labors, courage for the future, comfort in sorrow, joy in service to others, and most of all, peace.
Mark Gordon is a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.