As the years march inexorably past, it saddens me to see the general decline in interest, especially among younger people, in recognizing the sacrifices others have made to maintain our way of life. Our society in general feels less strongly today about honoring veterans – including those who died for their country – than did previous generations. And that’s a sad thing.
Increasing apathy toward veteran recognition also reflects a bigger problem – the general decline of patriotism.
Another factor is the lack of connection of the average American with anything military. This country has now reared a second generation that cannot tell a colonel from a corporal, a soldier from a Marine or a howitzer from a tank. Ignorance begets indifference.
Finally, too many younger people somehow conflate honoring veterans with glorifying war. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one hates war more than those of us who have fought in one.
Face it, us old farts have a different set of values and a different set of priorities. I’m not saying they are necessarily better, just different.
Declining participation in traditional veteran groups
Nowhere is that generational divide more evident than in the general decline of veteran service organizations such as the American Legion, the VFW and the Military Order of Foreign Wars. Membership is falling nationwide as older veterans die off and younger generations do not replace them.
Veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and today’s other conflicts are not just veterans in a vacuum; they represent a slice of our society as a whole. That society is technology-driven and time constrained. Most of those groups are still led by older men with different values who enjoy sitting around a monthly meeting over a beer, smoking cigars and swapping war stories. Family events and outings are the exception, not the rule.
Younger veterans feel differently. They appreciate family-inclusive activities, and their day-to-day communications are all technology-based. They can get their war story fix on Facebook, through group chats and via their cellphones.
But I digress; the future of traditional veterans organizations can be the topic for a future column.
The problem is much broader than that.
Patriotic values are the lowest they've been in generations
A general decline in patriotism is happening all around us. And the military cannot fix that; solutions can only come from the population as a whole. For starters, that means dinner table chats with our children in our homes, and effective history and civics instruction in our schools.
Patriotism being uncool has a domino effect: it also contributes to a decline in the willingness of young people to join the military in the first place.
(As an aside, absolutely boneheaded political stunts, such as Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s block of hundreds of military promotions, further discourage recruitment. Why should someone want to join an organization where your advancement and success can be controlled by political whim, as opposed to merit? Tuberville’s stunt can also have a chilling effect on retention, as many mid-grade officers rethink their options about continuing to serve.)
The bottom falls out of recruiting
Statistics are clear. The Army, Navy and Air Force will fall about 30,000 people short of meeting their recruiting goals this year.
A Wall Street Journal op-ed on Oct. 31 suggested “The divisiveness of American politics has undermined our military in a way the Pentagon doesn’t understand or refuses to acknowledge …
“To attract Generation Z recruits … the military changed its marketing strategy … emphasizing individualism and diversity over assimilation into a cohesive force with shared martial values.”
For decades, those of us who served were taught that there is no black, brown, yellow or white in the Army, just different shades of green. In combat, prejudices go out the window when your survival depends on the soldier on your right and the soldier on your left, regardless of their race, creed, color or sexual preference.
Taking us in a different direction will do nothing but undermine unit cohesiveness.
“The Pentagon’s diversity, equity and inclusion policies have heightened individualism and rendered obsolete the principle that the U.S. military is a colorblind meritocracy,” the op-ed warns.
Too many Pentagon leaders have their heads in the sand, continuing to blame the shortfalls on “an increasingly overweight, overmedicated and undereducated youth pool.” But there’s one big flaw in that argument.
Unlike the other services, the Marine Corps exceeded its 2022 recruiting goal – and is headed in that direction for 2023 – by resisting the urge to try to be all things to all people. It continues to emphasize the importance of discipline and subordinating individuality to becoming a part of a highly effective team. Focusing on the basic values of duty, honor and country remains the “basis for our ethnically diverse military, a distinct American advantage,” the column concluded.
Taking a knee
This brings me to an issue where I differ from many of my fellow veterans. From the first day I joined, I was taught that we served so that everyone else back home had the freedom to make choices. That includes choices that might disagree with, or even hate – such as when pro athletes choose not to stand during the national anthem. We’re being hypocritical if we pick and choose among the choices we feel are OK to make. That defeats the whole purpose of our sacrifice, in my opinion.
Retired Former Chief of Staff of the Army and Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Bernard W. Rogers was awarded the George C. Marshall Medal about 25 years ago. In his acceptance speech, he made a very interesting point about the unique nature of military service in our society.
“A doctor contributes to his patients; a priest to the members of his parish; a lawyer contributes to his clients; a politician to his constituents. But those privileged to wear our nation's uniforms belong to a profession in which every member, every day, makes a contribution – no matter how small – to every citizen of this great land.”
Those are words we should take to heart on this Veterans Day.
A final salute
Sergeant Lawrence J. Robidoux, US Army (1928-1951)
Our May 8 column related the story of this 22-year-old soldier from Cumberland, captured in Korea, who died of starvation in a prisoner of war camp in 1951.
As my colleague Jack Perry reported in March, in July, 2018 the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) proposed digging up the bodies of 652 unknown Korean War service members from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii. DNA and dental analysis confirmed that one of those disinterments was Robidoux.
On October 13, almost 70 years after the Department of Defense deemed his remains to be unrecoverable, Sergeant Robidoux was laid to rest in our nation's most hallowed ground, Arlington National Cemetery.
Command Sergeant Major William D. McNaughton, US Army (1934-2023)
Bill was a Coast Guard veteran of the Korean War, which began his illustrious military career that spanned more than 40 years. He served three years of active duty in the Army and later joined the Rhode Island National Guard. He was especially proud of his service with the 11th and 82nd Airborne Divisions, as well as the 77th Special Forces Group. He rose to the rank of State Command Sergeant Major, which he held until his retirement in 1994.
Bill had requested Green Berets to be his pallbearers and that a bagpiper play at his funeral. Rhode Island’s Chapter 48 of the Special Forces Association stepped up to honor his wishes. They supported both the services at St. Thomas More Church in Narragansett and his subsequent interment at the RI Veterans Cemetery in Exeter.
“I think we gave Bill McNaughton the funeral that he wanted,” said COL Steve Kelley Secretary of the Special Forces Association.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Veterans Day: A call to bridge the generational gap in honoring sacrifice