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The Cost of a Nation That Doesn't Care

written by Stacy Bannerman
on October 12, 2010

I was in Tampa, FL recently for a forum on "Strengthening National Guard Couples and Single Parents." The sponsors included the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which invited some of the top researchers on military family issues, as well as a handful of National Guard officers, a few retired Army officers and a few representatives from stakeholder organizations. I got the call because I am the only Guard spouse in the country who's been researching, writing and speaking about the domestic effects of the wars for seven years. At the forum, distressing research results were shared and discussed, and it made me reflect on my own experience as a spouse of an Army National Guard soldier.

I have frequently felt like a lone voice in the wilderness. Much of the time, I have been. There hasn't been a lot of attention paid to military families, demonstrated in "last year's survey by Blue Star Families, which found that 94 percent of military families felt that the American public does not understand or appreciate their sacrifice. Even with the best efforts of the First and Second Ladies, things have gotten only marginally better for active duty families (this year's number dropped to 92 percent for the same question). Guard/Reserve families remain invisible.

I have long contended that the refusal of the previous president to call for sacrifice from the more than 99 percent of the population that is not directly impacted by the wars is a civilian mission failure. It is also a failure of moral, ethical and political leadership. And here's why that matters.

The prosecution of the wars has virtually bankrupted the country. It has also created a massive and growing gap between the military and civilian populations. That gap cannot be sustained, as it fundamentally undermines national pride, patriotism, service and security. It is a breach in the social safety net, the sense of community and connection, and it places 100 percent of the responsibility for service and sacrifice upon less than 1 percent of the population.

Most Americans are detached from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and view military service as "something for other people to do," according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Speaking to an audience at Duke University on September 29, Secretary Gates said:

[T]his disconnect has imposed a heavy burden on a small segment of society and wildly driven up the costs of maintaining an all-volunteer force. Because fewer Americans see military service as their duty, troops today face repeated combat tours and long separations from family. Gates went on to say that, "There is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend."

Philosophical differences may be the least worrisome outcome. For those of us in uniform, or with immediate family members in uniform, particularly if they are Guard, the problems we face are much more concrete and acute. Several members of my husband's Brigade, for example, were fired from their jobs within days of receiving orders for their second deployment. That's illegal, but it occurs more and more frequently.

Researchers at the Guard family forum discussed a survey they conducted of various businesses and small business leaders. They presented two identical resumes, with one exception: one of the candidates was a citizen soldier. Employers stated that they would hire the civilian applicant over the Reservist.

After serving a 10-month deployment in Iraq, roughly half of the Oregon National Guard's 41st Brigade came home to unemployment. They are struggling to find jobs in a weak economy, and since they will likely deploy again in 2012, the chance that they'll get hired is virtually nonexistent. Separation from battle buddies, higher rates of post-combat stress and unemployment create the crucible for depression, divorce and veteran violence.

Other research findings revealed that the two most critical factors determining the mental health resilience of the military spouse were having a friend they could talk to during deployment who understood their concerns, and being in a community in which they felt supported. If they didn't have that — and most Guard spouses don't — their ability to cope during and after deployments, and their rates of clinical and sub-clinical mental health problems, as well as those of their kids, were significantly and detrimentally affected.

Adolescents who believe that America supports the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and that soldiers are making a difference in the world are less likely to suffer from anxiety and stress when their parent deploys, according to research by the Strategic Studies Institute at the Army War College.

Furthermore, early findings show that the one thing that can serve as a firewall between whether or not the soldier develops post traumatic stress, and ameliorates the effects of that stress in the combat veteran, is spousal support. When returning veterans have combat-related stress or other mental health issues and are separated from family, are isolated in their own communities and feeling hopeless about the churn cycle ever ending, the likelihood that they will attempt or commit suicide skyrockets.

By refusing to shoulder the burden of war, civilian America has disowned the people who serve on the front lines and on the home front, and has directly contributed to rising rates of post-combat trauma, soldier unemployment, military divorce and veteran, soldier and military family member suicide. There's no yellow ribbon big enough or bright enough to cover the cost of a nation that doesn't care.

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Stacy Bannerman author image

Stacy Bannerman

Author, professor, and advocate for veterans and their families

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