Americans are disconnected from their own military

Terry Garlock's picture

Every semester I am a guest lecturer for two hours at Newnan High School on the myths and truths of the Vietnam War. It almost seems Samuel Clemmons was looking to the future Vietnam War when he said in the 1800s, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Telling the kids what really happened, both in Vietnam and at home – the good, the bad and the ugly – is invigorating because they are so interested. It’s a good thing they want to know, because TV news cut their propaganda teeth on that war, and if our young people know that and learn to read a couple of good newspapers, one that leans left and one that leans right, they will be better equipped to think for themselves despite the TV party line they see disguised as news. In fact, the first slide they see in my Powerpoint slideshow says “Think for yourself!”

There is another reason it is encouraging to see the students interested in what must seem to them ancient history: America is becoming increasingly disconnected from all things military. Serving in the armed forces used to be common. Things have changed.

Just one-half of 1 percent serve in our all-volunteer military. It is easy to “Let someone else do it!” We veterans see disappointing reminders that the once-strong connection to our military has become distant, and thin.

At a Peachtree City parade a few years ago I showed my daughter, Melanie, how to stand straight and silent with hand over heart as the honor guard approached with our flag. I didn’t have a good answer when she asked me why people all around us remained seated and continued their relaxed chatter.

A Department of Homeland Security report to the President recently warned of potential violence from right-wing extremists, like veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan with violent tendencies.

In April, TV news jerked America’s attention away from “American Idol” with 24/7 coverage of a pirate hostage drama. Talking heads praised our military with breathless wonder after the hostage was rescued by sniper kill shots from a destroyer fantail at night on a bobbing sea. When it was over, reporters and viewers alike were still seemingly clueless that American men and women in uniform do remarkable and dangerous work every day, not just when TV camera crews make it to the scene.

Sometimes, when good people remain silent, misunderstanding our military becomes something more disturbing.

Long ago in the Army, I was ordered to warn my men not to wear their uniform off-base, for their personal safety.

More recently, during the Iraq war, the Berkeley, Calif., City Council tried to run the Marine recruiting station out of town.

Columbia renewed its ban against ROTC on campus.

Seattle protesters burned an American soldier in effigy.

The Pentagon warned their staff of a pattern of assault incidents against commuter train riders in uniform.

Stories are circulating of anti-war college professors using their grading pen weapon against unrepentant Iraq veteran students, just like they did to Vietnam vets. These are just a few warning signs.

How do we get so disconnected from our own troops?

Since the draft was discontinued in 1973, appreciation of what it means to serve has rapidly diminished over two generations. More than 65 percent of the remaining WWII generation are veterans. But after factoring out the WWII generation, less than 8 percent are veterans, and when you factor out draft-era Korea and Vietnam veterans, by my guess, less than 5 percent are veterans. Knowing what it means to serve is becoming rare.

That is a tragic loss to the country, and to the young men and women who are missing the enrichment to their lives military service can bring: fitness, integrity, maturity, self-confidence and strength of character. We would be well-served if Congress required at least 50 percent of its members be veterans, because serving our country brings perspective that lasts a lifetime.

Troops often have responsibilities far beyond their years, even in combat situations, with dire consequences from failure, and from that they learn a refined sense of what is important.

For centuries writers and poets have tried to explain the bond that forms among men in combat. My theory is, whether it be a car wreck or battle, nothing focuses the mind on what is important like a near-death experience.

For example, all of us in a war knew at least one guy who was a jerk. But when the shooting started, his jerk nature became trivial while keeping him alive was very important. When the shooting stopped, troops felt a little closer, even to the jerk.

And so a young soldier who looked for all the world like the freckle-faced kid next door would see troops he felt close to in trouble, and in a heartbeat he would dash into peril to help.

The folks back home never knew, but they did it day after day, again and again, until the survivors came home with a sharpened sense of what is important, and a closeness to other vets they could never explain.

Veterans have no corner on vision, but they tend to see the world a little differently, through a prism that separates the trivial, like “American Idol,” from the important, like the daily vital work of our armed forces. Too many Americans don’t even know someone who has served and their connection to our own military is evaporating.

I guess it’s a good thing there is a Memorial Day set aside to remind us of the sacrifice others made for us. Some will go to parades on that day, some will visit cemeteries, some will listen to long speeches. I fear it will be mostly vets who honor the memory of those who paid the ultimate price, while others fire up the grill or open the pool. I hope I am wrong.

I do wish those with kids would teach them on Memorial Day that our way of life is not a given, that it is bought and paid for by other people, just like you and me, who died serving their country. We have a duty to remember them.

There is nothing wrong with having a BBQ or swimming on the holiday, but a family’s expression of gratitude that the sacrifice of ordinary Americans keeps us safe and free, that should come first.

[Terry Garlock lives in Peachtree City. He flew Cobra helicopter gunships in the Vietnam War. Email him at]

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