Memorial Day is a time when we remember the nation's shared sacrifices in war. All told since 1775, more than 1.2 million Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice in our nation's conflicts.
Over the decades, however, the shared element of this sacrifice has waned. Although Americans have been wonderfully supportive of their service members in the recent conflicts, many have also observed that, with few exceptions, the nation's elites — the politically powerful, office and rank-holders, influential, wealthy and highly educated among us — do not typically have their children at risk in today's wars. Whether an inevitable result of our military becoming an all-volunteer force, or perhaps some deeper cultural movement, the trend has been growing relentlessly for decades.
In our politically polarized society of today this phenomenon has provided yet another political battleground for competing visions about the country's values and her future. The political left focuses on "chicken hawks," conservative politicians who advocate aggressive military action but without having ever personally served in uniform. The political right focuses on those progressives or liberal elites that use politics or declared conscience as an excuse for not serving as having demonstrated a "dereliction of duty."
Regardless of the ideological merits of these arguments, neither group has allowed its children to serve. Among members of Congress, for example, whether Democrat or Republican, only a handful have children in the military.
But is there is one group among our great nation's leaders and elites whose children are very much at risk. The children of those in the military itself. Many of the generals and admirals who lead our armed forces today have children who are also serving.
Indeed, studies have shown that one of the strongest indicators for whether someone will join the U.S. military today is whether they have a parent who has served. A recent government study found that more than 61 percent of the Marines serving in Iraq in 2004 had at least one parent who was or had been in the military. I saw this vividly myself during my last tour in Iraq. Half of the senior officers on our command staff had children who were in the military, many of them deployed to combat at the same time as their parents.
Military service has become a family tradition and collectively these families have formed a small "military tribe" within our broader society.
Spouses from the outside quickly assimilate when they marry into this warrior tribe. They learn first about the military culture — the rank structures, moving between bases and stations, commissaries and post exchanges, field exercises and deployment orders. They also learn, as one military wife noted, that the spouse associations were not about proper etiquette at social events but about family separation, anxiety and fear of loss and sometimes tragedy.
Because with service comes sacrifice. The son of Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the former U.S. commander in Iraq, lost an arm in combat. The son of Army Gen. Mark Graham was killed in action. Beyond these high-profile examples of loss, numerous colonels, sergeants major and first sergeants have seen their children hurt or killed in war.
Their grief has not manifested itself in public displays that are too often the face of grief that get broadcast to the world. Instead, these families nearly always say the same thing: military service was what our child wanted to do, we are very proud, and we miss them terribly.
Not long ago an old Marine friend learned that his son had been killed in Afghanistan. Can pride in a son's service ever compensate for a father's loss and grief? Some things are in the hands of God.
I hope that on this Memorial Day we can for a moment think about our military tribe: families that at their core are not much different from other American families. The nation entrusts them with its safety and security and its future as a free people. They comprise less than 1 percent of our citizenry but bear disproportionately the burden of sacrifice.
Marine Col. Mark F. Cancian, retired, served in Vietnam, the Gulf War and Iraq. His two sons who are Marines have served in Afghanistan.
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