Before They Fight. Honoring soldiers, especially before they enter battle, requires that we be honest as a people about what we are asking from recruits. Opponents of a military draft in the Vietnam era pointed out the injustice of the mandatory conscription of our nation’s youth, but it would be hard to deny that the draft was at least a brutally honest admission that few recruits would have volunteered to fight that war. It is neither just nor honest, however, to continue the current practice of luring recruits into the armed services with promises of career advancement, financial aid for higher education or the acquisition of professional skills. The primary task of a soldier is to wage war. We do our troops a disservice if we suggest that their commitment is no more than a glamorous but slightly risky office internship. Military recruiters insist that those who enlist are told they will likely be deployed into a war zone, but the slick, expensive marketing efforts of the military sometimes suggest a more disingenuous recruitment process.
The military also relies heavily on recent arrivals and disadvantaged members of the population to fight our wars. According to statistics from the Department of Defense, the Army includes almost three times the proportion of African-Americans as the general population. One survey of enlisted Latinos shows that fewer than 40 percent were born in the United States to U.S.-born parents. It would be an insult to our veterans to suggest that anyone chooses to enlist in wartime solely for financial reasons, but we must also ask ourselves: At what point do we jeopardize the integrity of our volunteer army by recruiting young people with few other options?
While They Fight. We honor soldiers during wartime by doing our best to care for their families in their absence. A crucial component of that assistance is the provision of the financial resources they need for proper housing and medical care. Recent news reports have noted that many private security guards contracted to work in Iraq receive more than $10,000 a month in salary. Such high compensation reflects the difficulty of attracting civilians to such dangerous situations. While it is hard to put a price tag on going into harm’s way, a comparison is telling: a newly enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army can expect to start at a scandalously low salary of $1,300 a month, supplemented in war zones by a few hundred dollars more a month in combat pay and other bonuses. The discrepancy reflects fiscal realities, to be sure, but it means that our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have precious little to bring home to their spouses and children, many of whom live at subsistence levels in military housing and struggle to stay afloat.
After They Fight. We honor returning soldiers not only with heartfelt thanks and just remuneration for their sacrifice, but with comprehensive medical care and assistance as they make the transition back into American life. Those over 40 remember the traumatic experience many soldiers faced when they returned from Southeast Asia to a divided nation not always appreciative of their service. What lessons can we learn from that conflict as we experience again large numbers of returning soldiers who have faced the nightmarish conditions of modern warfare? According to reports from the Walter Reed Army Institute, fully one in three veterans of the Iraq war seeks assistance with mental health. The physically wounded, including those who have lost limbs or suffered traumatic brain injuries, will in many cases require medical attention for the rest of their lives. Yet just five months ago, news reports indicated that 400,000 American veterans await disability benefits, in part because of massive deficits at the Department of Veterans Affairs. To allow fiscal considerations to reduce or postpone care for returning soldiers is perhaps the least patriotic act possible. The nation must commit the financial resources necessary to express our gratitude.
As we pray for a quick and just conclusion to these wars, we remember the men and women who serve in the military. Americans should join them in mourning the dead, thank them for their selflessness and offer them and their families the concrete assistance they deserve as our heroic veterans.