Over the past couple of decades the makeup of our military forces is undergoing some drastic change. Despite the herculean recruiting efforts by each of the services, fewer and fewer of our citizens are choosing to serve in uniform. I find this to be a curiosity of some interest. Two particular statistics bear this out.
Firstly, the most recent available U.S. Census data indicates that there are about 315 million people in this country. Secondly, out of our total population at any given time only 2.6 to 2.8 million Americans are serving in one of our military branches. This means that at any given time there are less than 1 percent of our citizens serving in uniform.
I interpret these numbers to infer that a very small portion of our citizens are engaged in this form of public service. Therefore, this small number of our fellow citizens now bears the responsibility to carry out the roles of diplomatic power projection, and the provision of security for our country. In other words, very few people are carrying a very heavy load so that most of us can have a 401k, travel at will throughout our country and the world and watch cable news on our 42" HD television.
An additional conclusion can be made that we are on the verge of becoming blind to service members and veterans; that we have forgotten about them, and therefore no longer care about them. Even in the recent presidential debates, aside from the argument over who would cut or fund "defense spending" to include a moderately interesting comment about Navy ships and "horses and bayonets," we hardly heard any mention of the military. We heard even less about the fact that every day our service-members continue to be engaged in armed conflict in Afghanistan.
Through some fairly simple fact checking, I found that during the period of the four debates in October at least 10 U.S. service members were killed in Afghanistan. Since none of the candidates who aspired to be Commander in Chief saw fit to tell you about them, I will. Of the 10, eight were in the Army, one was in the Navy and one was a Marine. They ranged in rank from an Army private first class to a Navy commander. The youngest was 20 years old and the oldest was 49; six of them were in their 20s; eight were male and two were female. Seven were Caucasian, two were black and one was Asian. All of them had a parent or parents. Many had spouses, children, brothers and sisters.
At the same time that the 10 service members were killed, an untold number were wounded. In addition many of those who have physical wounds which we can see, also have psychological and spiritual wounds within.
Why bring out these hard statistics, you may ask? Can't you just leave well enough alone and let this tragic war fade into the rearview mirror of historic obscurity? Let me answer my own questions. I am a person of faith and a Christian. In my opinion, one of the most influential sayings of Jesus in the Christian Scriptures is this one: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15.12, NRSV).
If people of faith are going to engage in God's mission of healing, forgiving and restoring, we have to know the facts. If we are serious about healing, we will soon find ourselves chest deep in repentance and penance. The service members and veterans are the unseen citizens who have been going to war, OUR WAR, for more than 10 years. I recognize that many of us have little or no sympathy with the war.
However, that does not absolve us of the need to care for these citizens who are our children, neighbors, sisters and brothers. How will we love those who have been willing to lay down their lives for us? Do we care enough about service members and about veterans to help them? Though there are some technical and organizational fixes to the solution for helping service members and veterans that may not be the fix for God's people. God calls us to more than a simple fix. The first principle is, I believe, to take seriously Jesus' mandate of love.
I receive calls, letters and e-mails all the time from people in dioceses, parishes and civic groups asking me what they should do to take care of veterans. My response to them is that there a host of other organizations that can help you to put together programs and processes that will aid you in dealing with veteran's needs such as psychological help, homelessness, education, retraining and medical assistance. I have come to the conclusion that program construction is really the easy part. The harder part is to determine if and why you care.
Veterans Day happens only once each year. It is easy and patriotic to care about service members and veterans on this day. For people of faith, the significant challenge is whether or not we will recognize, remember and care for those who have served us in uniform during the other 364 days of the year.
Bishop James "Jay" Magness is Bishop Suffragan for Federal Ministries of The Episcopal Church. Based in Washington, D.C., he is responsible for the pastoral care and oversight for armed forces chaplains, military personnel and families as well as oversight of federal hospitals, prisons, and correctional facilities. He retired from the U.S. Navy in 2003 in the rank of Captain, serving as command chaplain of U.S. Joint Forces Command and fleet chaplain for the U.S. Fleet Forces Command. Prior to those assignments, from 1997 to 2000 he was on the Navy Chief of Chaplains' staff as personnel manager of the Navy Chaplain Corps.