ATTRACTIONS OF SERVICE OBSCURED BY HARD COSTS OF WAR
Perhaps to a degree not seen before, news outlets, politicians of every stripe and wounded warrior charities have turned an intense spotlight on the problems service members and veterans have faced on returning from war.
Consider the number of news stories on post-traumatic stress and suicide, congressional hearings on the same topics as well as on sexual harassment in the ranks and veterans waiting months for VA care, and the steady stream of TV advertising to fundraise on behalf of wounded warriors.
Have the costs of war been so magnified by these trends as to obscure, or even distort, the more common positive experiences of volunteers who gain from service only valuable skills and robust benefits?
Recruiting officials believe that they have. With the U.S. economy improving and youth unemployment falling, they see the incessant negative images of wartime service as extra headwinds against their own efforts to tell the nation’s youth of opportunities that flow from serving their country.
Stephanie P. Miller, director of military accession policy for the Department of Defense, noted during a 40-minute phone interview Wednesday that in 2004 about 85 percent of recruit-age youth surveyed said they believed military service would help them earn money for college.
Yet despite the launch of far more generous Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits in 2009, which today easily cover up to $96,000 in education costs to attain four-year degrees, the proportion of recruit-age youth who associate the military with college money has fallen to 60 percent.
Miller pulled one more data point from the annual Youth Attitude Tracking Survey. In 2004, she said, 63 percent of recruit-age youth perceived the military as providing an attractive lifestyle. Today, only 36 percent of youth believe it does. Perceptions of service life have soured.
“A lot of the media coverage of the military over the last 10 years has highlighted wounded warriors, sexual assault and some of the negative aspects of military service that, realistically, only a small part of the population may experience,” said Miller.
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, head of Army recruiting command, made a similar point this month on National Public Radio’s Here and Now program, noting first that for soldiers wounded in war “we absolutely have an obligation as an Army and as a nation to take care of them.”
But, he added, the perception left with some parents is that in supporting “their son coming to the Army, that’s going to mean [coming] come home in a diminished capacity.”
The possibly exists, Snow said, but “the vast majority of our young men and women…blossom” in service “and go on to do bigger and better things. I get a little concerned that [efforts] designed to make sure we don’t forget about our fallen and our wounded may be hurting our youth and our ability to recruit today.”
Youth surveys also show a decline in veteran populations overall.
“So our biggest advocates out in the community may not be there as much as they were previously,” Miller said. American youth, she added, “are not necessarily saying no to military service. It’s that they don’t know about the opportunities that military service provides.”
That’s why the Department of Defense and every service branch is pressing to better educate youth and influencers, including parents, teachers and coaches “about the realities and positive aspects of military service.”
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