What prompted this was this article I read
it is long, but a very good read.
Sometime in February, I will quietly remove a small pennant that has been a fixture in my classroom for more than six years. It is a Blue Star service flag, the symbol of a son or daughter on active duty in the U.S. military and a tradition dating back to 1942 when the banner allowed mothers to show publicly a child was fighting as a soldier, Marine, sailor or airman. Each star represented one child, and many families had flags with multiple stars. Entire neighborhoods often had these flags in their windows during World War II, and people were proud to display them. No one wanted a Gold Star banner; that indicated that your child was killed in action. Whatever the color of the star, it was a symbol of a nation connected to its military when everyone knew someone who was in uniform or at least possessed a personal understanding of warfare's human element and the soldier's role in American society.
My blue star is my son, U.S. Army Sgt. Matthew Wellington, 62nd Medical Brigade, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington; his unit's nickname is "America's Medics." He will leave a military that may seem as if it is coming home, but it is still tasked with global responsibilities while facing manpower cuts leaving fewer Americans in uniform than at any time in the last 40 years. Matthew was a combat medic who spent 14 months in Iraq, first in Baghdad at the Green Zone's FOB (forward operating base) Prosperity, then in Diyala Province at FOB Warhorse. He is leaving the Army after nearly seven years and two enlistments in the service. During his 2007-2008 tour of duty he treated many casualties, often under fire from the enemy. He also went on countless patrols with his fellow soldiers, engaging in tasks ranging from finding and destroying weapons and munitions meant to kill Americans to handing out candy to Iraqi children. He earned the Combat Medical Badge and a commendation for his service. In 2009 while stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, he treated 12 casualties who were among 42 victims shot by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist and radical Islamic terrorist responsible for the worst shooting ever to take place at a U.S. military base. Tragically, 13 people were murdered by Hasan, but Matt takes comfort in the fact that all the victims who came into the clinic where he was working that day left there alive. I know of at least three times that he was almost killed in the line duty while in Iraq. For his mother's sake, he speaks very little of those events.
I am a high school social studies teacher who was trained as a historian. In addition, before full-time teaching I was a journalist who covered government and politics including military matters. As a historian and educator, I owe my students the best perspective I can on this nation's past and its current responsibilities. Therefore, experience and education have shown me that for better or for worse the American soldier and America's wars are things that educated people need to understand for the sake of understanding and keeping American democracy. We are now in the longest sustained time of war in the nation's history. Even with the end of combat operations in Iraq, some 84,000 soldiers and Marines are in Afghanistan at least through 2014. The U.S. maintains sizable forces abroad at the invitation of foreign allies because of commitments such as NATO or the protection of South Korea. We even have about 1,300 soldiers in Kosovo as part of the United Nations multi-national taskforce keeping the peace there since the end of the 1999 war. We are a nation that protects the world. Some kind of informed connection to the military and its role is vital to knowing how to assess the president's job as commander-in-chief, whether the U.S. is achieving its war goals, and how the country treats its veterans.
However, that awareness is becoming harder and harder to find in a nation where few choose to serve. About 1 percent of the nation's population is currently in uniform as either active duty or reserve such as the National Guard, and that number will dwindle as factors such as budget cuts and the inevitable drawdown because of the end of the Iraq War take effect. During World War II, about 12 percent of the population was in uniform. True, it was a different time and a different war. But, an entire generation comprising millions of citizens had some personal experience with the duties, sacrifices, opportunities and pride that came with military service. That shaped citizens' outlook on everything from how they voted to what they considered the proper role of the United States in the world. This gap is particularly large among young people. In November, a Pew Charitable Trust poll indicated that while more than two-thirds of Americans over 50 have a family member who served in uniform, only one in three under 30 has. My own experience as a teacher bears this out in even more drastic terms: Out of the more 190 high school students I currently teach, only five have family members in the military. Perhaps a dozen have parents who are veterans.
Polling data consistently shows that the military is one of the most respected institutions in the United States. In a 2011 Gallup poll, 78 percent of Americans expressed "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the armed forces. (Congress, on the other hand, earns the lowest esteem, polling at just 12 percent.) Yet, it seems that today's respect for the military is often born out of pity or charity or guilt rather than any personal connection. Because of the hatred expressed by the counterculture during the'60s toward returning Vietnam vets or because society today lives like a nearly nine-year war had no impact on the lives of a majority of Americans, we owe the military a free lunch at every Applebee's from coast to coast. Most of the young people I know in the military just wish the average American understood what the military does and why it does it. They are grateful for the meal, but they want their fellow citizens to understand what the military does, how it gets the job done, and what the military should (or should not) be asked to do.
However, I am not writing a recruitment pitch. There is no doubt that despite the risks and hardships, military service is honorable, vital, and often personally fulfilling service. When I placed the banner on the wall behind my desk, I had no hidden agenda to convince my students to enlist – in fact, in the interests of scrupulous objectivity I have never had a military recruiter visit my classroom. (I have, however, when requested talked with students who were considering military service, offering them my perspective and encouragement as the parent of an active duty soldier, and I have written letters of recommendation for students enlisting in the armed forces or entering ROTC while attending college.) First and foremost, I wanted to help my students understand that for what often amounts to at least half of their lives an army of people, American people, people not much older than they, are at war. People fight wars – not a virtual reality game that is the Department of Defense's answer to Angry Birds, not storybook characters, not computer images in Call of Duty. People. Fight. Wars. My students' take on the politics, the necessity, or the futility of the Iraq War is their opinion and I do my best to spur discussion from all sides. But there is one message I give them that is non-negotiable. It is their fellow citizens who fight, and fighting means wounding and being wounded, killing and dying. Unlike their X-box, there are no infinite lives or immunity from the physical and mental toll of warfare on a battlefield.
We are a nation built on many principles, and one of them includes the idea of the citizen-soldier and his or her value. Yet, we see still another cycle of Congress and an administration deciding that more super-technology and fewer soldiers can save us. It's not the first time this has happened. (Remember: Hi-tech "shock and awe" was supposed to secure rapid U.S. victory during the first few weeks of fighting at the beginning of the Iraq War and then we would be greeted as liberators.) John C. McManus, whose brilliant study Grunts: Inside The American Infantry Combat Experience, points out that every time the United States turns to magic-bullet technology as a replacement for the never-ending need for young people with rifles fighting to protect the rest of us, we are heading for trouble because we are ignoring history. Whether youth choose the military remains their choice, but in a nation that frequently believes technology will save us we are on our way to what McManus calls a series of "an unhappy reality checks." If most of us have complaints about our cell phone service, why should we as a people believe that Pentagon super-science will be all it takes to stop, say, a nuclear-armed Iran? Victory through stealthy drones, Hellfire missiles, or death rays is the war we want to fight. It's clean, usually bloodless (for our side), and building all that hardware pumps billions of dollars into lawmakers' states and congressional districts. However, the wars that the United States has been forced to fight or chooses to fight have "been fought on the ground, usually by small groups of fighters, who require considerable logistical, firepower, and popular support." Nothing will change that reality, and we doom our military to additional hardship and death if we let our lawmakers think otherwise.
But, what if you don't want your son or daughter to join the military? Or, what if you decide that the military is not what you want to do? You have my blessing. All I ask is that you ask yourself why you are willing to let someone else's sons or daughters fight and die to protect you, your nation and the nation's interests. When Matt enlisted, a few friends and acquaintances asked me how I felt about sacrificing my son. I replied by stating that I was not sacrificing my son, but that I was supporting his informed decision, a decision that he made as an adult. He had other options in life. He received excellent advice from two veterans: a grandfather who served in the U.S. Army during World War II and a grandfather who served in the U.S. Army during the Cold War. He knew exactly what he was doing. I will not deny the tragedy faced by the families of the more than 4,500 Americans who have died during the Iraq War. But let me be frank: According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2009 (the latest statistics I could find) nearly 11,000 people in the U.S. died from alcohol-related accidents while driving. Nobody ever asks me about sacrificing my son when I loan him the keys to my truck. Americans need to get a better perspective on military service. Somebody else will always make the choice to serve, and in a nation that has no draft I can confidently say that the vast majority of the men and women who do serve are there because of their loyalty to one another and their love of the United States. One of the most admirable and selfless acts I know of us is when my son re-enlisted while in Iraq during a war when a motivated enemy held a dedicated interest in killing him. "I deployed because if I didn't someone else would have to," Matthew once succinctly told me. You see, there is more at stake than losing our wars. Our military is part of us as a vibrant nation that cares enough to defend what it represents. We are part of them, and it takes more than an easily uttered "Thank you for your service" to maintain that connection. That is why the phrase is called "popular support." We cannot continue this disconnect between the small percentage of Americans who wear the uniform and the overwhelming majority who have an adoring cluelessness about those who serve. If we do, we will lose even more of what unifies us as a people and a nation.
The blue star in my classroom is not enough. Nor are free lunches. Like a wish upon a falling star, as I take down that flag I will pray that the people of the United States will reconnect with their fighting men and women. George Washington, a man rightfully called The Father of Our Country, was a soldier most of his life. In his farewell to the nation at the end of his presidency, he called on the American people – a people who still possessed living memories of those who had gone to war so the United States could exist – to remember, "You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes." Through either service in uniform or education that teaches why the armed forces matter, we as a nation must be part of our military as vigorously as they are part of us, fully aware or fully experiencing the joint dangers, sufferings, and successes of a real call to duty. That is the only way real way to thank a soldier for his or her service.
Paul R. Huard teaches American Studies, Advanced Placement United States History, Economics, and Politics and Literature at Ashland High School, Ashland, Ore. His (step)son Matthew plans to major in engineering at Pacific Lutheran University after military service, and his daughter-in-law Lauren (also a veteran of the U.S. Army) is a microbiology major. Huard, who won numerous journalism awards for his work, covered politics and government for daily newspapers in California and Oregon before becoming a teacher.