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Gap Widens Between Those Who Served and Those Who Have Not

ROTC cadets in Princeton, N.J. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Harvard and its graduates have made a lot of history since the college’s founding in 1642. On Friday, Harvard made a bit more, when it formally welcomed the return of military reserve officer training (ROTC) to the campus after an absence of nearly 40 years.

A signing ceremony between Harvard’s president Drew Gilpin Faust and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus sealed the deal, ending an estrangement that began in the waning days of the Vietnam War and continued through the controversies over the now-abandoned “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

But even the prospect of future naval officers drilling on Harvard’s storied greens will not eliminate a widening gap in American society — between the 1 percent of Americans (2.4 million active and reservists) in the military and the nearly 300 million who have not served, nor have a family connection to those who do.

That statistic was front and center in a front-page spread in Wednesday’s Washington Post, a poignant story about Marine Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly, the highest-ranking U.S. officer to lose a son or daughter in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kelly’s 29 year-old-son Robert, a Marine second lieutenant, was killed by a land mine in Afghanistan last November.

But to The Post, and in speeches around the country, Kelly did not want to make a point of his son’s loss, but rather to emphasize that the sacrifices of these modern wars are being borne by a shrinking number of American families.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made the same observation in a speech last September at Duke University. He noted that the all-volunteer military is drawing on an ever narrowing geographic and social circle for its recruits. More are coming from military families. The geographic statistics are also striking, for instance that Alabama, with a population of barely five million, hosts 10 Army ROTC programs. Los Angeles, with a population of 12 million, has four.

Recent news stories and events have prompted the NewsHour to do more reports on this American phenomenon in the coming weeks. In the interest of disclosure: There are now at least four members of our staff of about 80 who have done military service. Among our recent college-graduate desk assistants and interns — certainly since 9/11 — we recall only one who had done military duty, a talented writer named David Botti, who served as a Marine in Iraq. He is now a journalist in Egypt.

Which takes us back to the concluding remarks of Secretary Gates, admonishing Duke students to participate in some form of military or public service:

If America’s best and brightest young people will not step forward, who then can we count on to protect and sustain the greatness of this country in the 21st century?

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