"Thank you for your service" is, today, an oft-repeated mantra, uttered after encountering a member of the nation's armed forces or — if recognized — a veteran of past and present wars. And rightly so. Typically, a highlight of the 2013 All-Star Major League baseball game on July 16 was a solemn tribute to the nation's military.
Some 1.5 million U.S. servicemen and women are currently employed in war zones worldwide, while the number of veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has now reached 2.5 million. But, though well-intentioned, such expressions often end just there. They are little more than a perfunctory acknowledgment with no real connection to the men and women in or out of uniform and the sacrifices they have made serving their country.
Because today's all-volunteer military represents less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, most people do not feel a direct connection to these fighting men and women even though members of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard remain highly esteemed. A recent poll by the authoritative Pew Research Center ranked the military No.1 in public admiration, above doctors, teachers, scientists and the clergy. Nonetheless, even though these men and women command all this respect, for many there's a sad disconnect between the respect we give them and the day-to-day reality of coming home to face unemployment, drug use, homelessness, physical and mental health issues, and a suicide rate (in and out of service) that now exceeds that of the civilian population.
The human toll for the military in the nation's two most recent conflicts is well-known and painful to recite: 6,700 dead, some 50,000 wounded (many grievously), and, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs, one out of five psychologically impaired by post-traumatic stress syndrome. Yet, besides their immediate families, too many of us, in a war-weary nation, appear to be uninvolved.
There is, of course, a reason. Many of us have no firsthand connection with those who have served or are serving. In 1980, there were 28 million veterans in the United States, and they made up 12 percent of the population. Today, 22 million veterans make up 7 percent of the population.
When I talk with members of the military or veterans, (which I often do when I visit VA medical centers or Walter Reed National Military Medical Center), I hear over and over again that most civilians have no idea of what military life demands of those involved or the sacrifices that these men and women make on our behalf.
I believe we have a special responsibility to these men and women that has not been fully met. Even those who, for sundry reasons, opposed the two long wars in the Middle East must recognize the sacrifices made by such courageous veterans. They responded without question to our nation's call to arms, fulfilling their duties with honor and dedication.
We owe all these ex-servicemen men and women, not only the grievously maimed, a singular debt. How can we repay it? Those in a position to hire them can put out the welcome mat for vets. Even better, they can contact the local VA hospital and see if there are veterans with physical or mental disabilities who can fit into the organization. Often, if these men and women are matched to the right jobs, they can be outstanding employees.
Another great way to do something more is to volunteer at your local USO serving veterans needs. Also, having corresponded with hundreds of service people for the last 20 years I've learned that getting mail means the world to someone deployed overseas. A good source to get names is: http://adoptaussoldier.org/.
I wish all of us would help spread awareness of the debt of gratitude we owe our military; I wish we'd each do what we can to help these former warriors gain meaningful education and employment; speed up the work of the V.A. in providing for their medical care and financial assistance; and also enlist others in this noble cause. If we truly wish to express our gratitude and make a difference in their lives, it will require more than just "thank you" lip service.
Mitzi Perdue is the widow of Perdue Farms Inc. President and CEO of Frank Perdue. She is a former president of American AgriWomen, an all volunteer organization that advocates for agriculture. She lives in Salisbury.To respond to this commentary, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.