The Bayonet

Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014

America losing touch with its Army

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There's a growing disconnect between Americans and their Army.

A 2011 Pew Research Center survey found that only 57 percent of civilian respondents, ages 30 to 49, said they had an immediate family member who served. The percentage dropped to one-third, among respondents ages 18 to 29.


While a draft would produce a new generation of veterans from across the socioeconomic spectrum, lawmakers and the military itself are generally not advocating that, for a number of good reasons, including cost and a possible increase in disciplinary problems, similar to those seen during the Vietnam era. I saw this negative consequence firsthand from draftees, after enlisting in the Marine Corps, in 1974, just a year after the All-Volunteer Force was only beginning to gain momentum.

However, there are a number of steps that can be taken to at least reacquaint Americans with their Army.

In July 2014, about 100 captains from across the Army met at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, with the Army chief of staff to discuss, among many other things, the need to reacquaint Americans with their Army.

They brainstormed a number of ideas, including visiting radio and TV stations to do public service announcements, particularly around the time of the Army birthday each June. The PSAs could focus on why the Army is great, why they're proud to be a part of it and so on.

Radio and TV stations are usually receptive to PSAs. There's almost always someone at the station who will be glad to assist, usually the person with a military background, or someone who has a military family member. I have firsthand experience making hundreds of PSAs in the 1980s for the Marine Corps, so that's how I know.

At that meeting with the captains, known as Solarium 2014, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said: "One of the problems the Army has is that it doesn't talk a lot about itself and what we've accomplished. We should be proud of who we are and what we've accomplished."

Besides doing public service announcements, Odierno suggested going to universities, Rotary clubs and other venues, and simply sitting down and talking "about who we are. People have misperceptions about what the Army is all about and misperceptions even about us as individuals."

The problem going to universities, or high schools for that matter, is that educators often have negative views about the military. In the case of high schools, success is usually measured by the percentage of graduates who go on to college, not those who enlist.

One approach would be to first introduce yourself and tell them you're not a recruiter. I taught high school and at the university for a while, and I know that teachers and professors often like to have guest visitors. For instance, I used to invite local business leaders to speak in my economics class.

History teachers might like a visit from a Soldier who helped make history in Iraq or Afghanistan. English teachers might too for that matter. The shop teacher might like to get a visit by a Soldier who fixes trucks or tanks or welds. And so on.

Besides the Rotary clubs, there are literally thousands of nonprofit organizations that are desperately looking for guest speakers during their monthly meetings. The bonus for the Soldiers is that these volunteer activities always shine on resumes and a free meal is often thrown in, as well. Best of all, though, is the good feeling you'll experience.

Soldiers on active duty, as well as National Guard or Army Reserve, could benefit. Those who separated or retired could be goodwill ambassadors for the Army as well.

Many, if not most Soldiers, are humble about their experiences in the Army, especially during wartime. So perhaps some practice with friends or Family would help in opening up. People are genuinely interested in hearing from Soldiers. I constantly hear Soldiers and other uniformed personnel getting "thank you for your service" greetings from civilians over the last 13 years - something I rarely recall before that time.

Soldiers can talk about anything they like: travels to other countries, jobs, wartime experiences, camaraderie.

An excellent topic would be the Army profession, which is commitment, character and competence based on values and trust - something the sergeant major of the Army talks about passionately all the time and probably will keep talking about after he retires.

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