My name is Lisa Reed. I served in the U.S. Air Force from 1999-2003. I enlisted a little over one year after graduating from high school in California and took a position in intelligence. I am now 31 years old.
When I think of Veterans' Day, a myriad of memories come flooding back. I think of lacing up my first pair of combat boots. I remember the cold, heavy weight of the first gun placed into my small hands. I recall scarfing down an entire pizza when survival school was complete, overjoyed it wasn't another damn MRE. I remember being strapped into a fighter jet for my first flight, praying that the pilot's ability to handle the aircraft matched his sturdy confidence. (We both made it out okay, even more so because I'd managed to hold the contents of my stomach in.)
And I think of September 2001 -- watching passenger-filled planes fly into NYC and DC buildings while I was deployed in Kuwait, and the sense of helplessness that followed. I recall how the whole world screeched to a stop when I was informed that our wing was sending sorties into Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom, wondering if my life would ever be the same...
It hasn't been.
Most importantly, I see the faces of the men and women I served with. I remember everything they taught me, some of which they probably didn't even realize at the time. I look back at how we were, and how we all changed, together and as individuals. For the first time in my life, my well-being was wholly at the mercy of those I worked with, and vice versa.
So naturally I was caught off guard when I came upon a Foxnews.com Veterans' Day story highlighting a divide between military members. The story -- headlined, "Generation Gap Felt at Veterans Day Cook-Out in Chicago" -- reported that the VFW "lost about 200,000 people in just the last year. Younger vets aren't joining groups as commonly as they did generations ago." Attempting to explain this, reporter Ruth Ravve forwards the notion that younger veterans are somehow lacking in "patriotism":
According to the VFW National Membership Report, the organization lost about 200,000 people in just the last year. Younger vets aren't joining groups as commonly as they did generations ago.
The reason, some say, is the generation gap. "Those places are filled with older people. What am I going to do there?" said one Iraq war veteran. Younger vets don't seem to feel the need to become part of a group, especially now that many benefits are provided by the government. "I'd rather hang out with my friends," said Iraq war veteran Eric Spicer, who crinkled his nose at the suggestion of joining.
One VFW member suggests that younger veterans might not realize that these organizations are more than just social clubs, that they also provide healthcare, temporary financial aide and a lot more, like those not-so-coveted military buzz cuts.
Vietnam veteran Pete Roets, who let his buzz cut grow out a long time ago, isn't a member of any group, mainly because once he came back, he wanted to distance himself from all things military.
"I wasn't ashamed of serving but Vietnam was such a black mark in this nation's history that I didn't want to join any organizations associated with it" Roets said. "As I've gotten older, I've become more patriotic, but I'm not a flag waver by nature".
But Roets said he's never even been recruited by any of the groups and didn't know they had benefits. He thinks they need to work harder at reaching out to vets in their community.
Older veterans say a sense of patriotism often comes with age. If that's true, veterans of recent wars may someday be the ones doing the recruiting.
Ravve suggests that "the generation gap" is the result of young vets not feeling "the need to become part of a group" and also points to the amount of government benefits available. Suggesting that because vets are utilizing government aid, they're less likely to want to be part of a group is preposterous. Young vets aren't exactly sitting pretty with benefits, as Bloomberg Businessweek reports "the youngest of veterans, aged 18 to 24, had a 30.4 percent jobless rate in October, way up from 18.4 percent a year earlier." Additionally, many veteran benefit services and programs have been in existence for a very long time, including the establishment of the VA in 1930 and the introduction of the GI Bill in 1944.
The VFW is not the only veteran-related "group" in the U.S. There are a large number of organizations, ranging in focus, for vets to choose from. And as our society becomes increasingly open to discussing veterans' lives and the difficulties they face, combat vets may become more comfortable with finding support in smaller communities they hold dear, replacing the need to become part of an official group.
A veteran stating that he'd rather "hang out with [his] friends" should not be discounted. A support system is a support system, official or not. And if a vet having gone through combat wants to spend more time maintaining relationships with the close ones he left behind when he deployed, that's a positive thing. Instead of looking at what a vet doesn't do after his service, perhaps we can simply acknowledge that he served our country. Shouldn't that be enough?
The efforts of the VFW have led to life-changing programs for vets, including the passage of the GI bill, improved medical services for female veterans and "$2.5 million in college scholarships and savings bonds" provided to students. I hope that the VFW is able to grow its number of supporters, but linking the current number to young vets' supposed lack of patriotism is simply wrong. As suggested in the article, higher enrollment numbers may take additional investment into outreach, perhaps with more innovative mediums that are likely to reach younger vets.
Being part of veterans' organizations after leaving the service can certainly be a product of heightened patriotism. But patriotism shouldn't be assessed by what organizations a vet chooses to join. And it certainly can't be used to lay a blanket statement over an entire group of veterans.
Ravve omitted from her piece Iraq and Afghanistan vets' actual views about their own patriotism. Connecting a veterans' patriotism to her age is, again, preposterous. Many joining the military have a sense of patriotism beforehand. Or it could develop during their service. For others, it comes after their service. And one veteran's idea of patriotism is not always the same as the next. For myself, a veterans' patriotism is appreciating the positive values we learned while serving, and continuing to use those values for the better of our communities, our country, and ourselves -- regardless of how we feel about past or current conflicts.
When I've spoken with other vets in VA hospitals, I have felt no "generation gap." I usually get a comment on how young I look. They'll ask me which service I enlisted into, perhaps what job I had. I'll question them about what years they served. The rest of the conversation is simply one veteran speaking to the next. I had one older man ask little in details about what I'd experienced. He just gave me the most sincere look, and asked, "Are you doing okay?" His question was completely reasonable, because -- young or old -- we're not all "okay" after what we've seen and experienced. But what we do have as veterans is a community based solely on giving our service and ourselves to our country, and that means the world to me.