Be grateful for those who shoulder the burden — today and always

Be grateful for those who shoulder the burden — today and always
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The traditional opening to a Veterans Day op-ed is that it’s “a day set aside to recognize and thank our veterans for their service and sacrifice.”

And it is. With World War II not yet 20 years a matter of history, President John F. Kennedy, himself a veteran of that war, said, “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.” 

As one of America’s 20 million veterans being recognized and thanked today, my reflections turn to the result of our collective service, because we collectively served something bigger than us individually.

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In that sense, Veterans Day, for me at least, is every day. It is every day of my life that is blessed with liberty. It is every day that I appreciate the service and sacrifice of those who served to secure the rights of liberty. In my family, that service included Bunker Hill, the butchery of the Civil War, both world wars, Vietnam, and my own brushes with war.

In France, where in October I spent 10 days in Bordeaux (yes, wine was involved, as well as incomparable food), Nov. 11 marks the end of World War I. 

Until appropriated by the U.S. to recognize our veterans, Nov. 11 served the same function here.  Called “Armistice Day,” it marked the end of the “war to end all wars” that killed some 117,000 Americans.

Now, after a century and a second world war, countless other wars worldwide and, here at home, two decades of what we’re calling an “endless war’’ — how naïvely optimistic it may sound: a war to end all wars.  

Yet, may we be grateful for such optimism. It is such optimism that propels our young men and women into war for us. It is optimism in their belief that they go to serve something worthwhile. It is optimism in their belief that they go to better themselves. It is optimism in their belief that they go to stop a wrong. 

In “The Everlasting Man,” published seven years after the 1918 armistice, G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Right has a right to be right and therefore a right to be there; and wrong has no right to be wrong and therefore no right to be there.”

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Veterans Day recognizes those who believed in the right and, for more than two centuries, have shouldered the burden of delivering us from great wrong.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 1 million members of the Reserve and National Guard have been activated for service; nearly 1,300 have made the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror.  

These men and women have served shoulder-to-shoulder with their active-duty comrades, fully sharing the risks of war and fully contributing to mission accomplishment in every campaign.  They stand ready to leave at short notice their families, jobs, schools, and the safety of home for the nation they love. They, like their active-duty counterparts, have courageously and selflessly stepped forward and said, “Send me.”

And they are sent and they do sacrifice. Last week I spoke with an Army Reserve engineer chief warrant officer who just returned from his third Iraq deployment in nine years. His “home-to-war” ratio is little different from that of a “regular” soldier’s.  

He is proud to be a soldier. He also is a senior project manager in his civilian engineering firm.

“I don’t want to complain,” he said, “but this is the Reserve.” He shared his concern that his employer soon may grow weary of his absences.  

That concern is increasingly echoed by members of the Reserve and Guard whose employers confront the unprecedented challenge of running businesses that depend on employees who leave at frequent intervals to support military activity that “seems like it keeps going.”

Yet more pernicious, ROA is hearing of instances where would-be employers ferret out that a job applicant is in the Reserve or National Guard — and look elsewhere to fill the position.

This is the consequence of a combination of factors. America’s military now depends on an all-volunteer force that utterly relies on the Reserve and National Guard to successfully operate at any significant level. As a nation we have chosen not to pay the price to have an active-duty force large enough to do the job.

Combine that with a protracted war, conducted without the express sanction of a congressional declaration of war as provided for in the Constitution. A war declaration drives a vigorous, public debate on the merits of war; it is meant to prevent a president from unilaterally taking the nation to war. Essentially, the American people have been omitted from the matter. 

And so, we need a large and “operational” reserve and we are using it at historic — and perhaps unsustainable — levels.

Yet again, making a flawed process work, these intrepid young Americans answer the call. They set aside their civilian lives and “go to the sound of the guns.” They, alongside their active-duty comrades, are answering the wrong.

For them we give thanks. And among their company I gratefully count myself a humble and proud member. 

Because of those we thank on Veterans Day, each day I celebrate, in the brilliance of that right so blessing this country, my own personal veteran’s day.

Maj. Gen. Jeffrey E. Phillips retired from the U.S. Army with 37 years of service and now directs ROA, a Washington-based nonprofit that supports the military’s Reserve and National Guard units. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.