US military and civilians are increasingly divided
Jovano Graves' parents begged him not to join the Army right out of high school in 2003, when U.S. troops were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But their son refused his parents' pleas to try college. He followed them both into the Army instead.
Last June, 11 years later, Staff Sgt. Jovano Graves returned home from Afghanistan, joining his mother, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Sonia Graves-Rivers, for duty here at Ft. Bragg.
"My family, going way, way back, has always felt so proud to be Americans," said Graves-Rivers, who comes from a family in which military service spans six generations, starting with her great-great-grandfather, Pfc. Marion Peeples, who served in a segregated black unit during World War I.
Her father, Cpl. Harvey Lee Peeples, fought in the Vietnam War. Her uncle, Henry Jones, was career Air Force. Another uncle, Sgt. 1st Class Robert Graves, spent 22 years in the Army. Her sister, Janice, served 24 years.
"In our family, there's a deep sense that being American means serving — showing gratitude by giving back to your country," Graves-Rivers said.
Multi-generational military families like the Graveses form the heart of the all-volunteer Army, which increasingly is drawing its ranks from the relatively small pool of Americans with historic family, cultural or geographic connections to military service.
While the U.S. waged a war in Vietnam 50 years ago with 2.7 million men conscripted from every segment of society, less than one-half of 1% of the U.S. population is in the armed services today — the lowest rate since World War II. America's recent wars are authorized by a U.S. Congress whose members have the lowest rate of military service in history, led by three successive commanders in chief who never served on active duty.
Surveys suggest that as many as 80% of those who serve come from a family in which a parent or sibling is also in the military. They often live in relative isolation — behind the gates of military installations such as Ft. Bragg or in the deeply military communities like Fayetteville, N.C., that surround them.
The segregation is so pronounced that it can be traced on a map: Some 49% of the 1.3 million active-duty service members in the U.S. are concentrated in just five states — California, Virginia, Texas, North Carolina and Georgia.
The U.S. military today is gradually becoming a separate warrior class, many analysts say, that is becoming increasingly distinct from the public it is charged with protecting.
As the size of the military shrinks, the connections between military personnel and the broad civilian population appear to be growing more distant, the Pew Research Center concluded after a broad 2012 study of both service members and civilians.
Most of the country has experienced little, if any, personal impact from the longest era of war in U.S. history. But those in uniform have seen their lives upended by repeated deployments to war zones, felt the pain of seeing family members and comrades killed and maimed, and endured psychological trauma that many will carry forever, often invisible to their civilian neighbors.
Today's military enjoys a lifestyle that in many ways exceeds that of much of the rest of the country: regular pay raises and lavish reenlistment bonuses, free healthcare, subsidized housing and, after 20 years of service, generous retirement benefits unavailable to many other Americans.
Senior officers live in large houses, travel on their own planes and oversee whole continents with little direction from Washington. Special-operations teams carry out kill missions and drone strikes — some even targeting U.S. citizens — that most civilians never even hear about.
Now, as the military winds down its 14-year-war in Afghanistan and the Army cuts 18,000 troops from its ranks, military officials are stepping up efforts to bridge the gap between veterans and the civilian world they are preparing to rejoin.
"The last decade of war has affected the relationship between our society and the military," Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a commentary in 2013. "As a nation, we've learned to separate the warrior from the war. But we still have much to learn about how to connect the warrior to the citizen.... We can't allow a sense of separation to grow between us."
Dempsey's comments reflect a growing concern in the military that reintegrating service members into communities whose understanding of war is gleaned largely from television may be as difficult as fighting the war.
"I am well-aware that many Americans, especially our elite classes, consider the military a bit like a guard dog," said Lt. Col. Remi M. Hajjar, a professor of behavioral sciences and leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
"They are very thankful for our protection, but they probably wouldn't want to have it as a neighbor," he said. "And they certainly are not going to influence or inspire their own kids to join that pack of Rottweilers to protect America."
As she awaited her husband's Ft. Bragg homecoming recently, Amanda Schade gave her twin baby sons pacifiers printed with "I love Daddy." She checked her makeup, then held up two small American flags the Army had supplied.
Amanda spotted Spc. Aaron Schade among paratroopers standing at attention before a huge American flag at Pope Field. She whispered to her 3-month-old sons, Bruce and Ben: "That's your daddy. He's a hero." It would be the first meeting for the father and his sons.
A general announced: "Please go welcome home your soldier!"
Amanda rushed forward, a twin tucked into the crook of each arm. Aaron swept up all three. "I love you," he said. He cupped Amanda's face in both hands for a long, passionate kiss. She broke down and sobbed as the band played "The Army Goes Rolling Along."
These scenes play out across America as the troops flock home, but they happen behind the locked gates of military bases, largely unseen by the civilian world.
Increasingly, those bases have become fortresses. Base closures have consolidated troop populations onto a dozen large "joint" bases and other huge installations like Ft. Bragg, home to 55,000 soldiers and their 74,000 dependents.
Bases often feature their own shopping centers, movie theaters, restaurants and ball fields. Troops board planes for distant conflicts on their airfields and return wounded to their hospitals. Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the bases are largely off-limits to civilians.
"Military bases are our most exclusive gated communities," said Phillip Carter, an Iraq veteran who directs the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.
The Schades, like two-thirds of Ft. Bragg families, live outside the base. But most of their neighbors are military or ex-military.
The Army's influence in Fayetteville is so pervasive — as in many towns near big military bases in America — that it's often hard to tell where the military ends and the civilian world begins.
A helicopter crash or deadly roadside bomb in Iraq or Afghanistan can bring Fayetteville to a dead stop. The news races across town in phone calls, text messages and tweets: Was it one of ours?
People mark their calendars with deployment departures and arrivals. There is a baby boom nine months after every big battalion or brigade arrives home. In the schools, graduation ceremonies are live-streamed to parents deployed overseas.
Yet only a 65-mile drive north of Ft. Bragg, in the college town of Carrboro near Durham, the military is a universe away. Many there have no connection save for the brief moment of gratitude and embarrassment they feel when they see a man in uniform at the airport, missing a leg.
"We glorify the military in this country in a way that's really weird," said Eric Harmeling, 21, a Carrboro-area resident who often argues with his father, a politically conservative minister, about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "It's like the Roman legions.... It's like we're being told to kneel down and worship our heroes."
Jerstin Crosby, a former graduate student at the University of North Carolina who now works as a computer artist, said the only direct encounter with the military he can remember was when he taught a Middle Eastern art course to airmen at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, N.C.
He respected the airmen's knowledge of Iraq — some seemed to know it better than he did, for all his education — but was also sometimes baffled by them. Why, he wondered, did everyone on base stop their cars at 5 p.m. and stand at attention? Only later did he learn it was a daily show of respect as the nation's flag was lowered.
"I thought it was some kind of prank they were playing on me," he said.
George Baroff, enjoying an outdoor lunch at an organic food co-op in Carrboro one recent afternoon, said he understood the military quite well: He served three years as a draftee during World War II before eventually becoming a psychology professor in nearby Chapel Hill.
Baroff, 90, finds himself startled when people learn of his war record and say, as Americans often do to soldiers these days, "Thank you for your service."
"You never, ever heard that in World War II. And the reason is, everybody served," he said.
In Baroff's view, today's all-volunteer military has been robbed of the sense of shared sacrifice and national purpose that his generation enjoyed six decades ago. Today's soldiers carry a heavier burden, he said, because the public has been disconnected from the universal responsibility and personal commitment required to fight and win wars.
"For us, the war was over in a few years. The enemy surrendered and were no longer a threat," he said. "For soldiers today, the war is never over; the enemy is never defeated." The result, he added, is "a state of perpetual anxiety that the rest of the country doesn't experience."
Increasingly, America's warrior class is defined by geography.
Southern states consistently provide the biggest proportion of recruits. California had the highest number of enlistments in 2013 — a total of 18,987 — but the state supplies a relatively low percentage of its 18- to 24-year-olds, the age group that fills the military rolls every year.
The highest-rate contributors were Georgia, Florida, Idaho, Virginia and South Carolina. The District of Columbia was last.
The military-civilian divide is not marked by particular animosity or resentment on the civilian side. In airports and restaurants, civilians thank men and women in uniform for their service. They cheer veterans at ballgames and car races.
What most don't realize is how frequently such gestures ring hollow.
"So many people give you lip service and offer fake sympathy. Their sons and daughters aren't in the military, so it's not their war. It's something that happens to other people," said Phillip Ruiz, 46, a former Army staff sergeant in Tennessee who was wounded twice during three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Douglas Pearce, a former Army lieutenant who fought in Afghanistan and is now a marriage and family counselor in Nashville, said civilians seem to think they "can assuage their guilt with five seconds in the airport."
"What they're saying is, 'I'm glad you served so that I didn't have to, and my kids won't have to.'"
Opinion polls consistently find that the military is the most trusted American institution. A Gallup poll last June found that 74% of more than 1,000 Americans surveyed had "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the military — versus 58% in 1975, at the close of the Vietnam era.
Yet a 2011 Pew Research Center study titled "The Military-Civilian Gap" found that only a quarter of civilians who had no family ties to the military followed war news closely. Half said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan made little difference in their lives, and half said they were not worth fighting.
"We've disconnected the consequences of war from the American public. As a result, that young man or woman putting on the uniform is much less likely to be your son or daughter, or even your neighbor or classmate," said Mike Haynie, director of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University in upstate New York. "That is a dangerous place to be."
For decades, young cadets in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps, or ROTC, were able to rub shoulders with civilians on America's college campuses. During the height of the defense buildup under President Reagan, there were 420 Army ROTC units. Today, there are only 275 ROTC programs.
At Stanford University, Kaitlyn Benitez-Strine, a 21-year-old senior, was scribbling notes in the back row of her modern Japanese history class recently, listening as her professor cataloged the misdeeds of the American military in occupied postwar Japan.
"People became increasingly resentful of the U.S. military presence," the professor said. "There were crimes by U.S. Army personnel — rapes and murders."
For Benitez-Strine, due to be commissioned as a U.S. Army lieutenant this summer, it was an uncomfortable moment. Her sister, a Marine, is stationed in Okinawa. Her parents were Army officers, as were many other relatives. She grew up in a military community near West Point. But she rarely discusses her background with other students.
Stanford, one of the nation's elite universities, has more than 6,000 undergraduates. Benitez-Strine is one of only 11 in ROTC.
She sometimes feels uncomfortable wearing her uniform on campus, as ROTC requires two days a week. Students "might think I'm a cop or something," she said. "Or they see me as a badass who can kill them at any time."
A 2013 survey by three West Point professors found that the estrangement between the military and civilian worlds is especially pronounced among young people. Many civilians born between 1980 and 2000 "want no part of military life and want it separate from civilian life," according to sociologist Morten G. Ender, one of the study's authors.
On the other side, military recruits in that age range had become "anti-civilian in some ways," the survey found.
"I am irritated by the apathy, lack of patriotic fervor, and generally anti-military and anti-American sentiment" of other students, an unidentified 20-year-old ROTC cadet told the authors. "I often wonder if my forefathers were as filled with disgust and anger when they thought of the people they were fighting to protect as I am."
Benitez-Strine is not as critical of her fellow students. Indeed, the more time she spends in ROTC, the less certain she is about a career in the military.
As part of her training, she spent a month following a captain, the commander of an Army maintenance unit at Ramstein Air Base. She was not prepared for the sometimes mind-numbing routine of Army life and the restrictions on her freedom.
Her unit was confined to base after a radio went missing, forcing her to cancel a sightseeing trip. And when a male enlisted soldier friended her on Facebook, he was disciplined and she was warned against fraternizing with lower ranks.
"I realized being in the Army is a lifestyle, not just a job," she said. Benitez-Strine recently decided to join the Reserves, rather than go on active duty, when she graduates.
The previous school year was a grim one here in Fayetteville, where the Cumberland County school district serves the communities outside Ft. Bragg. Between the beginning of the term in September 2013 and the following spring, six students committed suicide.
Five of them — four boys and a girl — were from Army families, with a parent deployed overseas. Two shot themselves with military weapons.
School Supt. Frank Till, who has been an educator for three decades, is more than familiar with adolescent anguish. But it wasn't until he came here in 2009 that he experienced the helplessness of trying to truly understand — and help — students and staff members who live under the spell of violent events on the other side of the globe.
"You can only imagine the trauma families go through," said Till. Teachers in his district have been pulled from class to be told that a husband had been killed in Afghanistan. He has consoled students who dissolved in tears because a parent had just departed for Iraq or Afghanistan.
"There's just incredible tension here," he said.
Yet the civilian community has been overwhelmingly supportive. Local churches and other religious communities pitched in to provide support for families devastated by the deaths.
It wasn't a one-time gesture: Church prayers here are routinely offered for the living — soldiers in harm's way thousands of miles away, or just back from the war and in the next pew.
"The only people we pray for by name in church are deployed soldiers," said Jean Moore, 52, who was born and raised in Fayetteville.
"Mothers and fathers across the country — they give their children to us to serve in the military and defend our country," said Tony Chavonne, 60, a former mayor of Fayetteville. "We have an obligation in the community to support that."
"War is not a political word around here," agreed his wife, Joanne, 54. "It's where our friends and neighbors go."
©2015 the Los Angeles Times
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