In my twenty years, I have never been truly confronted with the topic of the United States' military besides in history books. I only know two people who joined the military after high school. I never considered it and I know the majority of my graduating class didn't either; the path from high school to college to a civilian job seemed clear. Yesterday, everything changed, as I was surrounded by people from my own generation who seemed to be living in a separate world.
This fall I took a course at my university entitled Sociology of War and Peace. It forced me to consider topics I had never discussed before in an academic setting. Post traumatic stress disorder, sexual violence against women in the military (there's a new movie on this http://invisiblewarmovie.com/) and the cost of defense spending. My studies on these topics were eye opening and I was shocked to learn that when the war in Iraq officially ended in December many of my peers didn't even know.
That's when I joined ALLIES: Alliance Linking Leaders in Education and the Services. This organization was founded at Tufts University in 2006 and currently has individuals engaged at the US Air Force Academy, the US Naval Academy, West Point, and Boston University. ALLIES's purpose is to bridge the gap between civilians and the military through joint education, joint research, and joint training. It has given numerous students the opportunity to become engaged in an aspect of American culture that can often be overlooked if one is not directly involved (http://www.tuftsgloballeadership.org/programs/allies).
Currently I am interning at the Pentagon for the Department of Defense and am surrounded by a lifestyle I still feel vaguely unfamiliar with. Arguments regarding defense spending, acquisition technology, personnel numbers, technological advancements and risks, and foreign policy are irrelevent. It is the sheer fact that this entity exists and yet so many of us remain unaware of the policies, procedures, and sacrifices that shape it. I pass two and three star generals in the hallway, admiring them becasue I know I should, yet still not fully comprehending the work that they have done. I am seated next to a retired Navy Captain who served for thirty years, yet I had never known where that title fell on the list of rankings. I am slowly gaining experience within a system that less than a year ago I had been relatively unaware of. Yet even though I have access to the building, I still feel an invisible barrier between myself and many of the individuals I interact with. How can I possibly understand their work if I do not fully appreciate military culture and what makes it tick? How can I do that without experiencing it firsthand?
This sentiment hit me especially hard yesterday morning when I attended the 2012 Warrior Games Recognition Ceremony. The Warrior Games give wounded, ill, and injured soldier athletes (from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Special Operations) the chance to compete in archery, cycling, wheelchair basketball, shooting, swimming, track and field, and sitting volleyball (http://wtc.army.mil/about_us/warriorgames.html). Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta praised all of the Games participants and specifically spoke about Navy Explosives Ordinance Disposal officer Brad Snyder. Brad Snyder was blinded from an explosion in Afghanistan last September. Now, only a year later, he will represent the United States at the 2012 London Paralympics. His story is incredible and I highly recommend looking him up online if you have not yet read about him.
After the ceremony, I was walking downstairs to grab some coffee when I passed a group of men and women who seemed to be only slightly older than me. They were young and were talking and laughing amongst themselves, clearly having a great time. It really hit me that there was no real difference between us. Except for one. I would not have known about the Warrior Games or the incredible determination these individuals have had I not been interning in this building. I have only read about war, while they have lived through it. I have only seen images and clips, often based on what the media wants to depict, while they are the ones being photographed. I considered dedication to be 10 mile long runs for my cross country team, while they trained tirelessly after dealing with severe injuries and pain I cannot even fathom. I have never put my life in danger, or in the hands of others, in order to stand up for my values or what I believe is right. And as I passed them in the hallway I was uncomfortably aware of the fact that while I walked quickly towards the escalators, they remained seated in their wheelchairs.
The absence of the draft and the establishment of a professional military have enabled us to keep military culture at a distance. For so many of us, our understanding of war and the functions of the Department of Defense are surface level. I believe that this is a significant aspect of the United States that cannot be overlooked. We have a responsibility to understand and support our returning troops. Issues of PTSD and veteran unemployment rates need to be discussed. We cannot remain ignorant about our troops' mission and conduct overseas. OUr country is diverse, and with that diversity comes various viewpoints and political sentiment. Wars and policies can be popular or unpopular. Debate can be taxing and that is okay. What is not okay is the lack of discussion at large.