Our family is in the process of reintegration after a year-long deployment. Though my husband normally wears flights suits for the Navy, this time he was wearing Army ACUs and working in the desert. We’ve already been on a Disney Cruise to celebrate his homecoming and created the family raised-bed garden we had been talking about for so long. Watching him and the boys work together to create the garden, to be honest, is even better than watching the “fruits” of our labors mature and grace our kitchen table.
The longer the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, the more attention is paid to military families like ours. Support the troops. Support their families. If you don’t stand behind them, get in front of them. Yellow ribbons enough to pave a road long enough to get Dorothy back to Kansas. There are slogans, magnets, and bumper stickers galore these days. Increasingly more studies are done to tell us about the effects of OPTEMPO (operational tempo) on military members, their spouses and children. We have created task forces, alliances, a Congressional Military Family Caucus, and articles and books are being written by military spouses like myself which try and give a behind the scenes take on True Life: We Are a Military Family.
Some of these initiatives are aimed at attempting to bridge the gap between the experiences of military families and the greater community at large. This is because with less than 1 percent of our population serving in the armed forces (about 1.4 million active duty military personnel and 1.3 million Guard and Reserve personnel are serving worldwide) there are many whose daily lives aren’t affected by the strain the current war has placed squarely upon the shoulders of such a small segment of the population. Also, increasingly those in decision-making positions have not spent time in the armed forces. For example, there has been a steady decline of veterans in Congress. In the 111th session of Congress there are 121 members who have served in the military, 96 in the House and 25 in the Senate. This is five less than the 110th Congress and continues a steady decline from previous sessions (for example in the 91st Congress 398 members were veterans). The resultant detriment to both our military and our democracy are easy to comprehend, the erosion in the quality of the relationship evident. Some would say perhaps the situation which occurred last month between Gen. McChrystal and the White House is more of a symptom than the root of the problem. However, while there are several devastating consequences of the increasing estrangement of our ruling class from our military, the one most interesting to scholars of public service (and military families like mine) is the less tangible aspect, the loss of a sense of shared community and shared purpose.
A Pew Research survey done in July of last year showed that an overwhelming 84% of respondents agreed that members of the military “contribute a lot to society’s well-being.” They were ranked higher than teachers, scientists, medical doctors, and even clergy (77, 70, 69, and 40 percent respectively). However, I’d like to see more tangible effects to this “pro-military” sentiment than bumper sticker mentality and sound bites about patriotism. In my judgment, the best way to show honor to those who have served, to support military families and our way of life, is by taking action in your own sphere to contribute to a shared sense of community. Honor military members and their families by becoming active and giving back in your own way. Don't just go to a parade and get that choked up feeling of pride, but go the step further and visit a USO office at your local airport, volunteer to be a mentor or sports coach in your community league, or offer to sign up to babysit for your local military spouse meeting.
There are many types of ways to show you care and the best ways are the most personal in nature. I’ll never forget our next door neighbors coming over with a pizza that horrible first night of my husband’s last deployment. Just being there with us to help fill the empty seat at the kitchen table made all the difference in the world to how we remember that first night of deployment. There were feelings of warmth and support instead of emptiness. Laughter and planning instead of silence and glassy eyes. As Henry Clay said, “Courtesies of a small and trivial character are the ones which strike deepest in the gratefully and appreciating heart.”