On Memorial Day, strive to bridge the gap
Two years ago this month, one of our nation’s greatest military leaders, Admiral Mike Mullen, spoke in a memorable commencement address at West Point of how in traveling the nation, he’s always impressed with the support the American people show the military.
Then he added a key observation: “But I fear they do not know us,” said Mullen, then serving as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle.” Mullen urged the graduates to commit to bridging what he described as a growing gap between military and civilian cultures.
Mullen’s wise observation reflects what I witnessed after my husband, U.S. Army Specialist Christopher Horton, was killed in action in Afghanistan’s Paktya province in September 2011. There is indeed a divide between civilians and military veterans and families — but the good news is we can work together to build greater understanding.
My husband, Chris, a native of Collinsville, Okla., was only 26 when he died. Patriotic, courageous, honorable and caring, he enlisted because he believed in America, and he wanted to give everything he could to defend freedom around the world so we could remain safe back home. Neither of us fully grasped how much we would both end up giving.
In the weeks and months following Chris’ death, I was heartened by the outpouring of support I received from family, friends and even strangers. Like Mullen, I saw that Americans are deeply proud of our service members, and they want to show their support. But as time passed, I was also aware of how hard it is for Americans to fully understand what military families go through.
In an earlier era, when millions of Americans completed a period of military service under conscription, a broader and deeper understanding of the military existed throughout American culture, as a matter of shared experience. Today, with our all-volunteer military, we have a professional defense and peacekeeping force without equal. But that has come at a cost: today, fewer Americans have firsthand military experience.
That disconnect can have serious consequences in how civilians and military veterans relate. In 2012, a veterans’ advocacy group, The Mission Continues, polled Americans to learn more about how they think about veterans. Most respondents reported strongly positive feelings about veterans, but they also believed that veterans are likely to be less educated (not necessarily true, particularly if you factor in the expertise and leadership skills that come with military service) and likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (true in some cases, but not for the vast majority of veterans.)
Those misapprehensions have real-world implications. For example, over the last several years, veterans have suffered higher unemployment rates than the civilian population, in part due to the lack of shared understanding.
The question is, how do we bridge that gap in understanding? I wouldn’t urge a return to the draft — it’s hard to make the case that mandatory service would make our military stronger. However, I wish we could recapture a part of that spirit of shared sacrifice and service of an earlier era.
One key to rekindling a deeper understanding of military service in American culture lies with members of the military and their families. As Admiral Mullen urged, it’s incumbent upon us to share our stories with the American people, so we can learn from one another. At the same time, I would urge Americans who may not have served to spend time getting to know more about the military, our veterans and what they do for our nation.
This Memorial Day, virtually every city and community will host parades, remembrances and other special events to honor those who have fallen in service to our nation. Get to know the names and stories of some of our fallen heroes — make sure they are not forgotten. Attend one of these events, talk to the attendees and connect with those who have served. Visit with a war veteran or talk to a Gold Star family (i.e., families who lost a member in the line of service). You’ll be surprised at how much they welcome your companionship and consideration.
And then, don’t let it end on Memorial Day-let’s make it a lifelong commitment to bridge the gap between our civilian and military cultures.
As Admiral Mullen said, we should “try to see things through others’ eyes and leverage every opportunity to better understand and to be better understood.” As the wife of a fallen soldier, I know my husband Chris would have wanted just that for the country he loved so deeply and served so honorably.
Jane Horton is a veterans activist and proud Gold Star wife to SPC Christopher Horton, an Army sniper killed in action on Sept. 9, 2011, in Paktyia, Afghanistan.
As a member of Concerned Veterans for America, Ms. Horton devotes her time to Gold & Blue star families and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.