We were herded from the rooftop of the American Embassy in the West African Republic of Nogoland. Gun smoke and dust filled the air as I approached one of the Army Rangers who had just rescued us from an armed and angry mob.
“I noticed you didn’t read those guys their Miranda rights before you opened up,” I joked.
“No, sir,” he deadpanned. “When we show up, it’s too late for that.”
Fortunately for me and my fellow “hostages,” Nogoland is a fictitious country and the bullets and bombs unloaded by the Special Forces troops were blanks. But the assault felt real enough at the time: the rapid staccato of machine-gun fire, the blasts of exploding hand grenades, the shouts of soldiers in combat and the beating chop of helicopters overhead. All that was missing was incoming fire. Thank God. The actual setting was Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the 82nd Airborne Division and the third stop on an eight-day tour of the active-duty military sponsored by the Defense Department.
The Pentagon puts on this show because it is worried about the growing disconnect between the American people and our warrior class.
Fewer than one in 10 of us under the age of 65 has served in the military. Ninety-five percent of the news media (including yours truly) have never worn a uniform, which may not surprise anyone, but here’s a statistic that might: Only 8 percent of members of the Congress have military service on their resumes.
So when the four-stars try to persuade politicians on Capitol Hill that it’s a bad thing they can’t afford spare parts to keep planes airborne, or when your friendly Army recruiter comes knocking at the local high school, the reception isn’t what it once was. Too many people haven’t been there, haven’t done that. And their fathers and mothers haven’t been there and done that either. In the span of two generations, we’ve evolved from a country where nearly everyone either served or someone close to them had served in the armed services to a nation where only a tiny fraction of its citizens has a clue what the military is about.
Consequently, the Pentagon grasps every opportunity to tell its story. It collaborates with Hollywood in movie productions such as Pearl Harbor, which it hopes will cast the military in a favorable light. It spends millions on television commercials. And it runs programs like the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference to put its best combat boot forward.
Like everything else military, the conference goes by an acronym – J.C.O.C. We quickly took to pronouncing it Jay-Cock instead of the more genteel Jay-See-Oh-See (as in Oh Say Can You See) preferred by Pentagon organizers. The Marines pronounced it Jay-Cock, so it was official as far as we were concerned.
The conference was mercifully light on Power Point presentations and exceedingly heavy on participation and pyrotechnics. This year’s was the 64th of these tours de forces since the end of World War II. I was invited to attend by Lt. Gen. Bob Raggio, commander of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
The 55 participants paid for their rooms and meals, but everything else – incidentals like continuous air travel, the priceless time of countless soldiers and sailors, bombs, rockets, bullets and the use of Kevlar helmets – was picked up by Uncle Sam. That would be you, the taxpayer.
In return for this full-immersion experience, which one participant dubbed a military fantasy camp for civilians, the Defense Department hopes we will return home and spread the word about our armed forces.
As you would expect, the Pentagon’s story was well rehearsed. Time and again during our eight-day journey we heard these messages repeated:
* The young men and women in uniform are doing a splendid job under trying circumstances.
* The end of the Cold War has not made the world a safer place. Indeed, with the proliferation of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction – coupled with the growing threat of terrorism – it’s scarier than ever out there.
* Money. Money. Money. There’s never enough.
* The military has changed its stripes. These days it loves the color purple.
Purple, we were told, is about being joint, as in conjoined, working as one (and not to be confused with the controversial “Army of One” ad campaign).
The Defense Department wants you to know that the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and even the Coast Guard are talking to each other, planning together and even manning important missions together. These joint commands fall under neither the banner of Navy blue or Army green, but purple, as a way of signaling their being joint – as in Joint Civilian Orientation Conference.
Why this emphasis on purple? “This is an integrated force because we can’t do it any other way,” said Charlie Cragin, assistant secretary of defense.
Why can’t they do it any other way?
Since the end of the Cold War, America has reduced the size of its armed services by a third, yet the number of missions – from brush fires in East Timor to major theater conflicts in the Persian Gulf – have risen 300 percent.
Downsizing has brought about some efficiency in the way the services interact, we were assured. But the cuts in military spending have been so deep the Pentagon now believes it can no longer fight two major wars simultaneously, a long-standing tenet of American military strategy.
And like a “right-sized” company whose overtime is out of control, the services are calling upon their reserves and even National Guard elements as never before to fill in for active-duty personnel.
Sustaining both the enlisted and officer rosters for the services has been challenging, especially during the recent economic boom years. Young people have many career options; even when the services can lure them, they often don’t stay long.
Which is why aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of America’s most sophisticated nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and among the most fearsome battle platforms the world has ever known, the captain told us the average age of his enlistees is just 19.
Throughout our journey we were continually encouraged to talk to these young men and women, and their work was frequently praised by their officers. “These kids are great,” we were told time and again.
And, indeed, during this tour we encountered many fine young men and women in the ranks:
* Frank Rupnik III, 22, of Troy has earned enough college credits that when he returns to civilian life in a few months he will be just two quarters away from finishing his college degree.
* At Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, 24-year-old Robert Spencer of Memphis told me he feels the Air Force has given him the focus he needs to succeed.
The stream of accolades finally got to one of the more iconoclastic J.C.O.C. participants, however. Weary of the praise, he wondered aloud at a closing conference with a panel of Pentagon brass:
Of course they were great. What did you expect? A bunch of drug addicts?”
No. But I suspect most of us didn’t have a clue what to expect, which was why we were there.
While the Pentagon worries about the disconnect between civilian and martial cultures that has grown since the advent of the all-volunteer military, it has been during that same period that the wounds of the Vietnam war have healed.
America’s attitude about the military and its mission is more positive. Feel-good victories in the Persian Gulf and Kosovo have helped. We’ve emerged as the world’s remaining superpower (never mind all those Russian nuclear warheads). And our technology is so hot we could shoot a cruise missile through the keyhole in Sadaam Hussein’s outhouse – if only we could find it.
But the world is still a dangerous place and this tour offered an opportunity for an inside look at what are armed forces are facing.
Our journey began in Washington, D.C., in late April with briefings at the Pentagon, and then for the next week we were airlifted across the United States to see and, for a short time, experience life in each of the services.
First stop was Norfolk, Va., where we toured a nuclear-powered attack submarine (no, we didn’t get to drive it) and a cruiser. From Norfolk we took off on a thrilling ride to an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic.
In the following days, we would find ourselves at Fort Bragg in the midst of a staged rescue operation and then on a rainy North Carolina beach where Marines would execute an amphibious assault. We would fire machine guns, sail with the Coast Guard, fly Air Force simulators and finally journey inside Cheyenne Mountain where American and Canadian forces monitor our borders from land and from space.
And in the end, we would have a deeper appreciation of the challenges faced every day by the young men and women in uniform who, for all of our sakes, stand in harm’s way.