"..Fresh out of boot camp, our typical infantry soldier was sent to the 24th Infantry Division, and was soon on his way to the Middle East as part of the force sent to evict the Iraqi army from Kuwait. Living under the most primitive conditions for months, our young private spends most of his time training. What free time he has is for writing home, repeatedly telling his folks to ignore the numerous predictions that at least 10,000 Americans will die if fighting erupts. Later, while lying under the stars and trying to ward off the desert chill, he wonders if he will be one of the 10,000, for he really has no reason to doubt the predictions. Finally, the assault begins, and our young private finds himself in one of the spearhead formations living through the fear and thrill of shredding several of Saddam’s much-vaunted Republican Guard divisions.
At the end of his first hitch, he reenlists and is promoted to sergeant, and is sent to Germany to join the 1st Armored Division. Our infantryman knows he is going to have to work and train hard. But, as the Cold War is over, he is also expecting a bit of downtime and a chance to see some of Europe. What he did not expect was to be ordered into the Balkans.
In late December 1995, the 1st Armored is sent to Bosnia to bring the long-running Yugoslavian violence to an end. For the troops to get to their destination, a pontoon bridge had to be thrown across the Sava River, which was experiencing its worst flooding in 70 years. Weather conditions were terrible all through the days of the bridge’s construction, and no better when the 1st Armored Division began its crossing. As our young sergeant led his armored vehicles across the makeshift bridge, a journalist asked a bystander, “What does this mean to you?” The reply: “It means peace. It is as simple as that.”
The second half of our typical infantryman’s career saw him promoted to Sergeant First Class, where he cared for and trained a few dozen soldiers, and eventually to First Sergeant, where he was responsible for an entire company of close to 150 soldiers. Still with the 3rd Infantry Division, he spent most of 2002 in Kuwait preparing for the invasion of Iraq. And then, early the following year, he again was part of a spearhead unit, the one that conducted the 21-day blitz from Kuwait that culminated in the thunder runs into the center of Baghdad.
Unfortunately, capturing Baghdad was not the end of our soldier’s involvement in Iraq. Over the remaining seven years of his Army career he would spend half of that time in Iraq, while many of his brothers had alternate tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout this period he never much concerned himself with the politics of our involvement. His focus was always much more narrow and visceral: What do I have to do today to help destroy a violent extremist insurgency and to take as many of my men as possible home safely?
This nation asks a lot of its military, and they have given in full measure. One soldier captured it all when he said to me after finishing 20 years of service: “I have given the Army, my country, and my brothers everything I had. If there is anything left in me it is going to go to my family.” When he departed the service he took with him a retirement paycheck of less than $25,000 a year. It was promised to him. He earned it.
As Jim Lacey observes, this story of this solider isn't remarkable. In fact, it captures the shared experiences of thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have served during these tumultuous times. Not all served in front-line combat, but all endured the rigors and sacrifices that come with a career in uniform. And all of them were volunteers.
Social welfare, indeed.
ADDENDUM: Lacey's column is yet another reminder of the escalating battle over military benefits. Last week, Army Times (a Gannett publication that can hardly be described as an organ of the vast, right-wing conspiracy) ran a cover story entitled "Obama's War on Your Benefits." While the article isn't available on the paper's website, it does capture the growing frustration of many military members, who believe promises made to them are being broken while entitlement programs for the great unwashed go untouched.
Meanwhile, that deafening silence you hear is from the Republican presidential field. When President Obama chided them for not "standing up" for a gay soldier who booed (by about four people) during a recent GOP debate, not one of the Republican contenders provided the obvious rejoinder: why is the Commander-in-Chief so concerned about the plight of one soldier, while benefits promised to thousands of military members are eroding under his watch?
The most obvious reasons? First, only two of the Republican candidates have actually served in the military. Secondly, it appears that none of the GOP hopefuls want to paint themselves in a box on the issue, giving them the flexibility to make further cuts (as required) if they are elected president.
Sounds like a "lose-lose" for hundreds of thousands of career military members (and retirees) who gave so much for that $25,000 a year pension. We should also note that Professor Lacey's prototypical retiree was something of a fast burner. The average non-commissioned officer who leaves active duty after 20 years is an E-6, with an average annual pension of less than $20,000 a year.
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