By Kevin Shannahan
As Veterans’ Day of 2019 approaches, the nation has been at war continuously since 2001 with no end in sight. That heavy burden is being borne by a small percentage of the nation, with less than 1% of the population currently serving in the military. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I would not wish us a return to the days of WWII or the Civil War in which virtually every family had a personal connection to the war.
Nonetheless, the present situation is not without cost. The hostility to the military of the Vietnam era has been replaced by a shallow piety that borders on indifference. My social media account bristles with no end of flags, eagles and yellow ribbons. Mind you, this is far from a bad thing and a distinct improvement over Veterans’ Day in, say, 1970. Well meaning as it is however, it does have an occasional superficial ring to it.
America is so large and wealthy, that the nation can sustain a war for going on 20 years and have it leave no mark on the day to day life of the vast majority of the country. There is little hostility to the military in society today. There is instead a certain awkwardness born of a lack of experience of military service. Most of the people living in America have never worn a uniform, nor has a member of their immediate family. The evening news takes on a wholly different quality when you have a son or daughter in harm’s way. The armed services have been fighting across the globe in the nation’s longest war for almost two decades. Aside from that tiny sliver of the population and their families, there is no effect on the day to day life of the average American.
I’m not sure that there is an easy answer to this vast, albeit largely well intentioned, lack of understanding. The days of a mass army of citizen soldiers as in WWII are almost certainly behind us. Even a draft considerably fairer than the loophole ridden one of the Vietnam era would not come close to bridging the civil-military divide.
America’s veterans have much to offer our nation now that they have taken off their uniforms. Our society is riven along lines of race and class. There is an increasing level of rancor and incivility not just in politics, but in daily life. In areas as diverse as the school system to politics at every level, there is a crying need for leadership that seems to only grow worse.
When I was 23, I was an Air Force officer in an ICBM wing. When I was 32, I was a schoolteacher in rural Louisiana. I’ve written before on the shameful differences in expectation and resources shown in those two jobs, each important to our nation’s destiny. What I have not said before is that I owe the people of the Red River public schools a great deal. They hired an ex officer, virtually sight unseen, who not only had no teaching certificate, but had never set foot in a public school until that moment. I was, to put it mildly, hardly teacher of the year material. I was an arrogant little snot who thought he was going to singlehandedly fix the whole situation because, well, how hard could teaching 7th grade in Coushatta be compared to the Air Force, IQT and Minuteman crew? Pretty darn hard as it turned out, to no one’s surprise but mine. Teaching proved to be the most challenging-and rewarding-four years of my life. Along the way, I met some truly heroic people that would be the last to describe themselves as such, people who put their shoulder to the wheel and worked hard every day to make the world around them a better place. The Troops to Teachers program along with Springville Middle School and Hall Summit changed my life immeasurably for the better.
As I look back over the 27 years since I left active duty, I think many of my fellow veterans want the same things, a place to belong and a place to make a difference. I was fortunate to find several such places.
America needs you. There are classrooms to fill, teams to coach, Scout Troops that need volunteers. There are any number of places where you are needed. There is much work to be done in making America a better place. Welcome home and let’s get to it!