The place where our family lived the longest was Virginia Beach, Virginia. Our first house, a vinyl-sided Dutch Colonial on a cul-de-sac, was close enough to the elementary school to hear the morning announcements from our porch. Despite deployments which took my husband away, we spent nine wholesome, grounding, family-oriented years there, growing roots, making friends, and providing stability for our kids.
That rare nine-year stint was made possible because Norfolk, Virginia is home to the largest Navy base in the world, and many other military installations, support detachments and training centers are located in the surrounding areas. My husband was able to follow orders to different commands while we stayed put, in a community with long ties to and respect for the military.
Although I found the area to be flat and marred with too many strip malls, we truly belonged there, and we were happy.
But according to the newly-released 2019 Blue Star Military Family Lifestyle Survey, many military families don’t find the sense of belonging that is key to overall quality of life and well-being. Forty-seven percent of military families said that their local communities lacked awareness of their lifestyle and did not offer respect, understanding, and support. The top stressors for military families are arguably related to this absence of belonging: relocation stress, high military spouse unemployment, inability to earn two incomes, lack of affordable childcare, financial stress, isolation from family and friends, deployments, separation, and child education issues.
The Blue Star survey and other research indicate a steady widening of the military-civilian divide that began after the draft ended in 1973, and a decrease in the propensity of young adults to serve, slowly turning the military into an insular and largely ignored subset of the U.S. population.
Today, public war protests are rare, even though the American public disapproves of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as much as it did the Vietnam War. During the January face off with Iran, the public sat up and took interest … for a millisecond. “[P]ublic interest died away as quickly as it had arisen…The American public tends to only pay close attention to military matters during moments of crisis,” says Thomas Brody, a student journalist at University of Amherst.
Complicating concern over the growing disinterest in military issues is decreasing interest in military service. According to the survey, the number of Americans who serve has dropped to roughly 0.5%. Furthermore, the most significant recruiting factor today is whether one comes from a military family. In 2019, 79% of those who enlisted in the Army had a military family member. Considering that the number of young adults who have parents who served has decreased from 40% in the 1990s to only 15% today, it doesn’t take a military analyst to see a problem with the long-term sustainability of our all-volunteer force.
“If we’re not able to reverse these trends … what is it going to look like when today’s youth become the parents and today’s parents become the grandparents?” asked Katherine Helland, Director of the Department of Defense’s Joint Advertising and Research Studies center. Helland said that while Gen Zers know that military service is risky, their family members don’t teach them the “value proposition” of serving their country.
Retired Maj. Gen. Dennis Laich, director of the Patriots program at Ohio Dominican University, told Fortune magazine that the draft will return because the Pentagon is already spending too much money on new enlistment bonuses and recruiting strategies. “We say that it’s an all-volunteer force, but we’re paying huge sums of money to induce people to join.”
To stop these trends, the Blue Star report recommends that civilian and military leaders, schools, employers, corporations, philanthropies, and military families take action — but what, specifically, will stop the runaway train toward conscription?
Knocking on a new military family’s door? Inviting a civilian family to dinner? Asking the new military kid to eat lunch at your table? Advising high school students on the honor of serving one’s country? Whatever it is, we need to do it before the idyllic military lifestyle we had in Virginia Beach becomes an anomaly.
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