The Pros and Cons of Military Service
Why many Americans choose to enlist
Military recruiting stations are often humble affairs. The modest-looking storefront Army recruiting station in Hagerstown, Md., is no exception: a few cubicles, some posters, an American flag, and the seven Army values listed on the wall. The simple fact is that the people who join up with Uncle Sam usually don't need to be wowed by flashy videos, though the Army does churn them out by the bushel. Most recruits have a good idea of what they're signing up for and why they're doing so.
Brittany Gloss, sitting inside, certainly does. "I know what it'll be like. I've got a brother in the Air Force and a fiancé in Korea with the Army," says Gloss, who aims to be an Army nurse. Now, she's working at a grocery store bakery, waiting for her enlistment paperwork to clear. "It's time to get my life started, serve my country, and get some money for college," she says. That's a familiar refrain from enlistees, says Sgt. 1st Class Henry Oyler, one of the recruiters in the Hagerstown office. "The Army offers a way for people to help others, help their country, and change their own lives as well--it's an appealing offer," he says.
Patriotism is always one of the top three reasons people give for joining the military, according to national recruitment statistics. One of the Army values painted on the off-white walls in the Hagerstown center is "Selfless Service." "Sure, I'm hard-core patriotic," says Gloss. "I've even got a red, white, and blue tattoo." Of course, the stagnant economy is also an important factor, but not one that alone can explain why the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines have all exceeded their recruitment targets this year, even with two wars in progress.
Military work is perhaps the country's oldest and most dangerous form of public service. Historically, that service has often been a requirement rather than a choice, and the wars those conscripts were sent to fight were far bloodier than the current conflicts. Nowadays, the U.S. military is proudly an all-volunteer force of 2.2 million men and women that offers members a host of incentives in addition to the knowledge that they are serving their fellow countrymen. In his inaugural address, President Obama said that those in uniform "embody the spirit of service--a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves."
The military's most public work is in war zones, particularly Afghanistan and Iraq. Nearly 2 million Americans have served in uniform in those conflicts. Yet war constitutes only a fraction of the military's daily activities, which range from humanitarian missions in places such as Haiti, Guatemala, and Pakistan to staffing bases from Germany to South Korea to thwarting pirate attacks in the world's sea lanes.
In fact, the modern military has a "tooth-to-tail" ratio of 1-to-10 or more. Those are the estimated numbers of frontline troops compared to logistics and other support personnel. What it means for the majority of Americans in uniform is that they probably won't find themselves conducting raids against Taliban targets in the mountains of Afghanistan. Rather, they'll be in supply, logistics, training, and support roles far from the battlefield. No less vital to the mission, to be sure, but a far cry from the popular image of soldiers serving on the dusty and deadly front lines.
Regardless of the assignment, military service carries with it the potential for great rewards, both in terms of the skills that members acquire and the potential for advancement afterward. The military has trained thousands of doctors, lawyers, mechanics, and other professionals--an enticement that is not lost on the recruits who pass through the Hagerstown storefront center. They're also looking at the educational funding benefits, which can include tuition assistance, full or partial repayment of existing college loans, and educational aid for dependents. And, for the ambitious, there's the prospect of continued public service after the military, whether in the civil service (the federal government and some states give veterans preference when hiring) or elective office.
In the current U.S. Congress , there are 121 military veterans, or about 22 percent of the lawmakers, including several who remain on active duty or in the reserves. That share is actually near a historic low. In 1969, for instance, 74 percent of those in Congress had served in uniform.
Two complementary reasons help explain why voters affix particular significance to military service, says Roy Scranton, a writer and Iraq War veteran. "In our culture, we have this idea that those who have experienced war and served in the military have had an epiphany about life, that they are somehow wiser than those who have not seen it," Scranton says. "It's also [considered] a place where leaders are tested, and that's very true."
Thirty-one of the 43 U.S. presidents performed some form of military service. And in campaigns for offices large and small, military service is often the subject of heated debate: from Sen. John McCain 's service in Vietnam to President George W. Bush's time in the Texas Air National Guard to Rep. Mark Kirk 's inaccurate claim to have served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
There are numerous veterans vying for office this year, and their military service is on frequent display on the campaign trail as evidence of both their commitment to public service and their leadership. Nick Popaditch, 43, a retired Marine gunnery sergeant who lost an eye when he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during the battle of Fallujah in 2004, launched his bid for a congressional seat in the San Diego area by telling voters that "Our troops deserve the same courage and commitment that they display from their leadership." An iconic photograph of Popaditch smoking a cigar while a statue of Saddam Hussein is being toppled in the background has been a popular reference point for his campaign.
Jason Kander, 29, was studying at American University, not too far from the Pentagon, when the 9/11 attacks forever changed his life. Like so many who joined the military soon afterward (though a dramatic surge in enlistments post-9/11 is a myth), Kander says that public service was always in the back of his mind before circumstances pushed it to the forefront. As an Army intelligence officer in Afghanistan, he was assigned to root out corruption in the Afghan government. It was a daunting task, but one that he says helped prepare him for his current job as a state representative, pushing for reforms to clean up the Missouri legislature. Indeed, Kander has earned the nickname "Mr. Ethics" in the state. "Everything I do in my political life is colored by my military service. It was the defining moment in my life and helped me develop the leadership skills that I still utilize," he says.
But for all of its potential rewards, there are also substantial risks in military service, even after the smoke clears. More than 5,700 Americans have been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon. Almost 40,000 others have been wounded.
Wartime injuries, both physical and mental, can last a lifetime, with corrosive effects on veterans and their families. Indeed, once the initial enthusiasm surrounding a conflict passes, the United States has a less-than-spotless record in dealing with its veterans. One need look no further than the so-called Bonus Army (World War I veterans, promised a bonus for days served--but told not to expect the checks for decades--marched on Washington, to no avail), the many homeless Vietnam vets, or the deplorable conditions uncovered several years ago at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have faced serious challenges. The suicide rate for veterans ages 20-24, for instance, is estimated at two to four times the national average for civilians, which means the suicides for Iraq and Afghanistan vets may exceed the number of combat deaths. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that veterans overall commit suicide at the rate of about 18 per day. One fifth of the country's homeless population has served in uniform.
Back in Hagerstown, the perils of enlisting are far outweighed by the potential benefits for Alex Fogle, 19, who graduated from a nearby high school last year. He's been working construction ever since and is eager for his paperwork to clear so he can ship out; he hopes for an eventual assignment in the Special Forces. "My friends aren't surprised," he says. "I've always been interested in military service, you know, doing something for my country."
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The Pros and Cons of Military Service
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