Last month I went back to the Naval Academy, my alma mater of 27 years, to attend ship selection night, an annual institution at the academy. Seniors pick from a list of ships, choosing how their careers as naval officers will commence. My son was picking his first ship, just as his older brother did three years ago and as I did 28 years ago (much to the consternation of my father, a naval aviator, I served at sea like my grandfather).
The audience at this sacred event was comprised of old guys like me, young men and women about to start their service to the American people, and well-wishers. For those starting out, it is service they have trained for but which still feels somewhat surreal and distant. They are about to embark on the adventure fantasized about four years ago when first applying to the academy. They will experience a rewarding personal challenge that they never envisioned.
As they progress through illustrious careers — traveling the world and fighting their nation's wars — they will often receive thanks for their service. They will appreciate the sentiment, but what does it mean? And what are they being thanked for?
No small part of the appreciation is for a job well done in multiple areas. Before the recent midterms, only 19 percent of Americans viewed "security" as a top priority. But the military doesn't just fight wars; it is also routinely called upon in the modern age to take on missions outside traditional warfighter roles, such as fighting Ebola in Africa, distributing relief supplies in the Philippines and reestablishing order in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
Another reason for thanks is the recognition of self-sacrifice. In 2007, 81 percent of 18 to 25 year olds described getting rich as their generation's main goal. At the same time, less than half the population would recommend that a young person serve in the military, despite the nearly 90 percent who are proud of those who have served. When I brought my ship home on its last deployment, a huge crowd was waiting to greet the returning sailors. Vice President Joe Biden was on the pier and personally welcomed each sailor home. Sadly, that level of reception was not always the norm: Soldiers returned from Vietnam to less than warm receptions, for example.
Some of that can be attributed to the so-called civilian-military divide. Civilians may appreciate the military, but they largely don't understand it or its members, and those in the military can feel isolated from everyone else. That often prevents those outside military families from considering careers in the military. While some answered the nation's call after the 9/11 attacks, for example, the patriotic fervor did not equate to a surge in military enlistments. This is concerning because a wider pool of applicants may increase the quality of the all-volunteer force. A belief that the U.S. is the greatest nation on earth inspired me to encourage family members to join the military. It is not just the opportunity that drives me, but the desire to give something back to a country that has given so much too so many. This is a familiar sentiment among military families. A 2011 Pew Research Center report shows military members are over twice as likely as the general population to have a son or daughter also serving.
People love to watch videos of returning service members coming home to the surprise of their kids and get misty-eyed as they share in emotional reunions. We expect a polished military color guard at the Super Bowl, with a tightly packed formation of jets flying over during the singing of the National Anthem. And we shed tears at the sacrifices soldiers make on the battlefield. But empathy is not enough. I hearken back to John Kennedy's famous enticement to ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. Don't just stick a yellow ribbon magnet on the back of your car or repeat more empty platitudes; instead, support service by participating in it. That service does not have to be in the military but can take many forms: the Peace Corps, Teach for America and AmeriCorps are but a few examples.
If you really want to thank a veteran, encourage service as well as those who already serve.
Robert N. Hein is a captain in the U.S. Navy and a federal executive fellow at The Brookings Institution. The views and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the Department of Defense. His email is RHein@Brookings.edu.