Friday, December 27, 2013

The Other 99% (1% Serve in Military)

An important statistic known to many current and former members of the military is the percentage of the United States population that serves in the military. The rough statistic often mentioned is 1%. That means that 99% of the population has never served in the military. So naturally there is a cultural gap and a lack of understanding of the sacrifices that service members and their families make year after year. While some members of the 99% recognize this gap (see "Experiencing War Through a Twin", At War Blog, The New York Times, December 23, 2013); others are oblivious to it.

We have been at war in Afghanistan since 2001 and in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. If one served in an infantry unit you have probably went on four or five year-long tours to either Iraq or Afghanistan in that time. While in the states you participated in months-long military exercises (JRTC, NTC, JMRC, etc.) and attended military schools and training events that required duty in another state away from your family. In addition, there is the low-standard of living the junior members of the military endure, the hardships of deployment to austere locations (Iraq, Afghanistan, and other locations), the loss of friends and colleagues to IEDs and small arms fire, and the many lives forever changed due to loss of limbs injuries and wounds.

Listen to a conversation between one who has been to the wars and one who never donned a uniform. Many times the topic is changed after a brief exchange to something both can relate to - such as cars, football, or vacations. There simply is a lack of a frame of reference between the two engaged in the dialogue - at least on the topic of the wars.

This is not a new phenomenon. There has always been this gap between those who served and those who didn't. I recall an incident that took place in a different era (late 1970s) while attending college. I had just finished up a number of years in the military (labeled a "Vietnam-era Veteran") and decided to re-enter college to finish my degree. The college Student Council was holding a meeting to determine the budget allocation for the different student groups on campus. I was attending as the newly-elected President of the college's Veterans Club (we had sports teams, functions, mailed out monthly information newsletters, assisted other veterans with college costs, job placement, and support mechanisms).

During the budget meeting proceedings I found out that the Veterans Club had a yearly budget of $50 while other college clubs and organizations had a budget of hundreds of dollars. One of the council members made a move to take the $50 away from the Veterans Club and give it to the "Third World Club". I immediately questioned the motion and had to spend 10 minutes explaining who the veterans were, what the Veterans Club did, and why it was important that the veterans be recognized and supported. The Student Council grudgingly kept the $50 in the Veterans Club account. The takeaway for me was exactly how much of a disconnect there was between the college student population as a whole and the members of the military of the same age who serve. $50 isn't much, especially by today's standards; however the circumstances on the almost lost $50 is indicative of the the gap between the two worlds - veteran and non-veteran.

And how does this $50 story relate to today's world? You need to look no further than the recent National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed by Congress just before Christmas. Despite the sacrifices made by military members over the past 13 years of war Congress has now decided that it is no longer necessary for military retiree pay to keep pace with inflation; putting a limit on the annual pay raise that military retirees will receive. There is a huge disconnect between the 99% and the 1%; and when it comes to the benefits promised to the veteran for his or her service the 1% will need to ensure the 99% deliver on those promised benefits.

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