How important is a strong military to the United States?
Ask Adm. James Loy, commandant of the Coast Guard: “Because of the collective might of our armed services, millions of Americans can sleep well tonight, never fearing . . . a foreign threat.”
It’s easy to forget that you couldn’t make a statement like that until recently. Travel back a handful of decades in history, and Americans were waking up to the shocking news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the beginning of a war that would engulf the entire planet – a titanic struggle between good and evil that redefined America’s destiny.
My father fought in that war. He was the last member of my family to wear his nation’s uniform. Fewer than one in 10 people today have done so.
“The last 18-year-old to be drafted is now 46,” Assistant Secretary of Defense Charlie Cragin said. “We haven’t conscripted anyone for, essentially, two generations.”
With the end of the Cold War, we have grown comfortable in our sense of national security. And because so few of us have any direct ties to the armed services, we don’t often think about the people in uniform who stand ready to shield us from harm. Their numbers are relatively small. There are about 1.4 million officers and enlisted personnel on America’s active-duty roster. Add to them our reservists and National Guard, and the uniformed services still represent only about 1 percent of the American population.
What do they want? What do they need?
There are “two essential truths that all Americans should know about their armed forces,” Loy says. “First, we have terrific young people demonstrating incredible devotion to duty; second, we need to support them with proper equipment, training and compensation.”
Finding and keeping good people was a common theme among all the services during the eight-day Joint Civilian Orientation Conference.
“Your Army is about recruiting good people,” Lt. Gen. Larry Ellis said. “We’re challenged with recruiting quality soldiers . . . and we need help in maintaining the Guard and Reserve.”
Pay, especially in the lower ranks, is often cited as an issue. An enlisted solider or sailor at the E-2 rank with less than two years of experience makes about $14,000 a year. He or she also would receive a housing allowance, medical and other benefits. It’s not all that bad, really, for a kid right out of high school, but only if you don’t look at the hourly rate.
The hours young enlistees face can be brutal and the living conditions tough. Aboard a ship at sea, you work and you sleep. Aboard a carrier, you stand in long lines, sometimes for more than an hour, to get fed. And be careful where you walk. Blue tiles mean “Officer Country,” so mind your place.
Young Marines with families at Camp Lejeune live in substandard housing. The system never was designed to support 18- and 19-year-olds married with children. It’s not unheard of that these young service members must rely on government subsidies, such as food stamps, to get by, we were told.
As soldiers and sailors move up in rank and experience, their pay and benefits tend to look more like the civilian world. But turnover also can be a problem in the upper ranks. Just ask the Air Force, where the lure of the airlines is a tempting siren call to experienced pilots.
“I think everyone would agree that we don’t pay our people enough for what they do,” said Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, commander in chief of U.S. Space Command.
Adding to the retention and recruitment challenges has been the robust economy. It’s a bit ironic: A big chunk – if not most – of the federal budget surplus is a consequence of the downsizing of the military, according to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. “The surplus is really a DOD (Department of Defense) surplus,” he said. “Not a Clinton surplus or a Greenspan surplus.”
We need to be mindful of cutting too much, of becoming complacent, Wolfowitz said. We may think of ourselves as the world’s only remaining superpower, but, he argued, “there is a danger in being smug.”
What makes military commanders lose sleep? It’s not the Cold War fear of a Russian missile salvo. Terrorism is at the top of the list. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially biological weapons, is up there too.
Some threats to readiness are internal, such as equipment that’s old and falling apart. Air Force pilots today are flying planes that were built before they were born.
“Just like your old car, we don’t know what’s going to break next,’ Eberhart said. “We’re working our people harder and harder to get the same results.”
And those people don’t get the respect they deserve from the American people, we were told time and again.
“These are not 12-foot monsters with ragged teeth,” one Marine general said. “Go home and tell America what this (the armed forces) is all about.”
It’s about hard work and discipline. It’s about endless training. It’s about being away from home and loved ones for extended periods. It’s about danger. And it’s about patriotism.
What’s the message the enlisted men and women of our armed services want you to hear?
I had lunch at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida with a young airman who knew how to put it into words.
His name is Robert Spencer, and he’s an airman first class from Memphis, Tenn. Spencer enlisted after three years at Memphis State. “I kind of needed a little direction in my life,” he said. “I was always fascinated with aviation, so the Air Force was my choice.”
Unlike so many younger enlisted men and women, Spencer plans to re-enlist. And he hopes to join the Reserve Officer Training Program. He’ll deploy to Saudi Arabia this fall.
What’s the word you’d like me to take back from this trip, I asked him.
He thought for a moment, then said this:
“There is a military. Whether we’re in a time of crisis or not, we’re ready. We need the support of the country. We need people to remember we’re here.”