Worn Out Warriors
One of the really cool things about the weird niche I've carved out in popular media is the access it provides to our modern military establishment. Many folks in uniform, from the stars through the stripes, see me as a kindred spirit; someone who has been where they've been and done what they're doing in one form or another. These people aren't star-struck. Im no star. They know that and so do I but I am someone who speaks their language and understands their concerns from personal experience in uniform. They are anxious to tell me things they would not normally share outside the ranks. That gives me some unique insights; a reliable sense of the fiber and fabric of today's men and women in military service.
At this stage - ten years after our military took the lead in fighting a global war on terrorism - I'm more than a little concerned about the health and welfare of our forces. Some of my worry has to do with a large, convenient and razor-sharp meat-axe looming over the national defense budget, but never mind the big-ticket items lurking in a shaky procurement pipeline. I'm less concerned about tools and more interested in the mechanics that will have to do the preventive maintenance on a post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan military machine. What follows are observations gleaned from people in the ranks and tempered by the judgment of a former insider now able to take a slightly broader perspective.
Our military services - particularly the Army and the Marine Corps - aren't broken but they are damn sure over-stressed and bent toward exhaustion. You won't hear our people in uniform whining or crying the poor-ass about it, but over the past decade we have experienced a serious, chronic shortage of military manpower both in the active and reserve ranks. As usual with anything bearing a Federal price tag, the devil is in the details of the budget. We have a successful all-volunteer force and have had one since the 1970's but we are only now - under intense cost-cutting pressure - taking a hard look at what such a force costs to maintain and support. The math is fairly simple. Keeping the ranks filled with capable people is a huge expense. You don't recruit or retain the best and brightest at substandard wage levels. You take a big hit in the bottom-line at every step of the military service pipeline from enlistment to retirement. That means when you're faced with a need for more soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines for things like battlefield surges and international disaster relief; you can't just wave a magic wand or institute a draft. You've got to find another way that works with the budget numbers and doesn't totally wipe out the funds set aside for new gizmos, tanks, ships or airplanes.
Our response over the last decade has been to turn to the military reserve forces or the National Guard, drafting them with a wink and a nudge into an ultra-high tempo deployment schedule and worry about their other missions - such as domestic disaster relief - later. When that's still not enough - and it never is - you wind up either increasing the number or length of foreign deployments for all hands to keep bases covered. We've been doing that dance since 2001 to handle the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the piracy problem in North African waters, various international alliance commitments, earthquakes, tsunamis and a whole host of other global problems that require American military presence or solutions. I'm not positive about what constitutes a frazzle these days but I'm damn sure our military is nearly worn to one.
If you doubt that, you're not paying attention to one of our nations most precious assets. Unfortunately for us all, that seems to be the case among most Americans. I was staggered to learn recently that an average citizen of this country is more likely to know someone from South Dakota, our least populated state, than they are to know a soldier on active duty in the U.S. Army. No wonder the strain on our forces goes relatively unknown, unappreciated and under-reported. But the evidence is now beginning to surface in the media so maybe we'll take the bull by the tail and face the situation once the hoopla surrounding the next presidential election fades. We need to do that sooner rather than later.
The strain of multiple deployments and combat tours is showing disturbing consequences in the ranks of our mostly-married military forces. I won't beat you up with statistics here - although they are available with a little digging into the DOD files - but anyone in command of anything from a platoon to a division can tell you heart-breaking tales of domestic woe. Divorce rates, one of the typical yardsticks used by leaders to measure the morale in an organization that now includes spouses and children as part and parcel of the establishment, are skyrocketing. Suicide rates have become so alarming that every unit in every service now routinely conducts seminars and preventive counseling as part of the regular training schedule. And that's not to mention a steady increase in incidents involving serious alcohol or drug abuse among exhausted, beleaguered troops looking for a pressure-release valve between deployments.
Then there are the insidious, long-term effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) that are becoming commonplace among military people facing constant combat tours and regular exposure to the blast and shock wave of the terrorist weapon du jour, the IED. We should have seen that coming but we didn't. It beats the hell out of me how we could observe the ugly result of combat trauma on our Vietnam veterans for forty years or more and not expect to see something shockingly similar among troops rolling in and out of combat zones in the Middle East like kids on a merry-go-round. The high-priced shrinks are finally reaching the same conclusion veterans have known for decades: The more combat time people endure, the more likely they are to suffer from PTSD. With the average soldier or Marine serving something like three to five years in or around a combat zone over a normal enlistment, what else did we expect?
Unless we do something practical, its just going to get worse when the big budget meat-cleaver falls and our force levels are both quickly and brutally hacked to the bone by government efforts to stem the flood of Federal spending. We could go all pre-World War II isolationist and obviate the need for a large standing military but that's not in our geopolitical interest. It is, in fact, a dumb-ass move that we can't afford to make given the threats we face from jealous friends and terrorist enemies. America is a world power as well as a world leader. We made it that way and we can't afford to hit the undo button without sinking into an even worse economic morass or suffering more deadly attacks on our citizens at home and abroad.
So what to do? How do we help our military leaders protect our superbly capable but badly overused manpower resources in an era where less than one percent of all Americans have served in uniform during an entire decade of war? Whats the best course of action as we dwindle in bodies, bucks and brilliant ideas? Do we need a return to the draft?
That's a bad idea at this point, as much as it pains me to say so. I grew up in a military reinforced with national service draftees and I've always felt that serving in the military had a cohesive, broadening and educational effect on those who got their notice and did two years in uniform. I felt they came away from the experience better, more mature, more patriotic citizens, but those days are gone and we'd likely spawn a second American revolution (third if you count the Civil War) if we tried to bring back a military draft short of worldwide, officially-declared war.
We've got sufficient people available to serve in a standing military force of any size we can agree on as necessary and can fit in the budget numbers. Even if way too damn many of them are overweight or under-developed mentally and physically, our military has long experience and expertise at fixing those problems. What's lacking is incentive to serve and that has little to do with patriotism although that sentiment is hard to find among the history and civics deprived under-achievers we insist on graduating from our high schools these days.
Picture yourself as a jobless, relatively-clueless 18-year-old high school graduate wondering what's next. You can volunteer for four years of military service that will stress you mentally and physically and then repay the effort by consistently sending you overseas to get shot at or spend the time tweaking widgets at Fort Godforsaken thousands of miles from home and family. Or you can chill out for a year or more on unemployment after a couple of weeks flipping burgers. Or you can easily apply for - and very likely get - any number of local, state or Federal grants or loans to attend college and not have to work up too much angst about ever repaying that money. You don't need to ponder. See my earlier comment about less than one percent of the American population serving in military uniform over the past decade.
So, here's what we do. We eliminate all the free and easy money for college education that's now floating around for the taking in our society. We plunk all that cash down on national deficit reduction and economic stimulus. We get back to considering higher education a privilege to be earned and not a birthright to be paid for and provided by taxpayers. You either qualify for college tuition assistance through academic merit or you go to work and earn whatever it costs to pursue a college education. Either way, you appreciate what you get and don't spend four years screwing the pooch on campus only to wind up where you started, jobless and clueless.
I'm betting a lot of good young Americans would wind up reconsidering the military option. Used to be that most Americans expected to pay something for what they got and a return to that mode of operations might just help us quash the entitlement mentality that seems to permeate so many sectors of our society.
Posted By Captain Dale A. Dye at 2:11 PM in Category:General News