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Veterans and their families are the 'face of America,' and more

Veterans and their families are the 'face of America,' and more
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Veterans’ Day affords the nation an opportunity to say “thank you” to all who have chosen to serve, and risk their lives, for their country and their countrymen. America’s veterans total just under 20 million men and women, drawn from all parts of the nation, from all races, all creeds, all ethnic backgrounds. Those who have served in the past currently include, among others, a former African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a Jewish Air Force chief of staff, Hispanic and Asian American senior generals and admirals, as well as Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh officers and enlisted personnel. They are the face of America.

Service comes with a host of risks, some obvious, like that of death or injury, both physical and mental. There are other challenges as well, however. Service members with families run the risk that their families may suffer because of long absences overseas. Prolonged and repeated deployments have become virtually the norm during the past 20 years, not only as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but because the demands for American military presence have not declined commensurate with shrinking force levels. 

Long-term absences have, at times, led to divorce, economic strains or a spouse’s alcoholism. Constant changes of address, termed “permanent change of station” (PCS), have sometimes had the effect of disorienting children, especially those with special needs, who must adjust to new environments and new classmates. These constantly force families to find new lodgings, sometimes just as they have become accustomed to the old ones. Yet, despite these well-known challenges, men and women have continued to volunteer, continued to serve, and often have done so for two decades or more — and their families not only have supported them but have taken pride in their achievements.

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There is a good reason why the military consistently ranks as America’s most admired profession. It is not merely because so many men and women have demonstrated heroism on the battlefield. The members of the four armed services and the Coast Guard are as highly motivated as they are highly educated: The military officer corps, and its senior enlisted officers, invariably have earned graduate degrees; many have earned doctorates as well. 

The thousands of military officers and enlisted personnel who serve abroad also are America’s auxiliary diplomats. America’s “military ambassadors” range from the lowest-ranking private, seaman, airman and Marine to the four-star generals and admirals who serve as combatant commanders across the globe. It is truly astounding to see young men and women — some barely into their 20s, many of whom have never previously been overseas — befriending adults and children alike from vastly different cultures, even when they cannot communicate in the same language. In particular, when young servicemen and -women provide humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of natural disasters, they create lifelong friends for our nation.

With more than 2 million men and women serving on active or reserve duty, there always will be some who break the rules or the law. That has been the case since the all-volunteer force came into being, and certainly before then, notably during the Vietnam era. But these people represent a miniscule percentage of the total force, a percentage so low it would be the envy of every American city and town. Moreover, those wearing the uniform, like their predecessors, respect and adhere to civilian control. They truly are model citizens.

No doubt these are turbulent times for the American military. The civilian chain of command is undergoing tremendous strain at the moment. Yet, the military’s men and women continue to face the hazards of duty, whether in the Middle East, Africa, East Asia or elsewhere — and their spouses and children will worry about them until they return. Our veterans who have served, too often in the face of danger while their families at home worried for their safety, are now home for good. We should honor their service to us all, not only on Veterans’ Day but throughout the year.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.