Regardless of whether the U.S. extends its mission in Afghanistan, our nation's all-volunteer military force will continue to shrink over the next 12 months. Sequestration, not going away anytime soon, means that current troop levels will be fiscally impossible to sustain. Nearly 80,000 Army troops will be forcibly retired in 2015 -- and that's just one branch of the military.
The cold, hard reality? We can project that approximately 250,000 - 300,000 service members will be making the transition to civilian life annually through 2017. And this concerns me.
As a young man growing up in Toledo, Ohio, I still recall the Senatorial campaign debate between Howard Metzenbaum and John Glenn, a decorated Marine who served from 1941 - 1965. At one point, Metzenbaum looked at Colonel Glenn and blurted, "How can you run for Senate when you've never held a job?"
Two weeks ago, during a House Veteran's Affairs Committee hearing, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald asked a similar question of Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), a 22-year veteran of the Army and Marine Corps (both active and reserve components). Talk about déjà vu.
It used to frustrate me when I ran into this same lack of awareness by corporate, social, and civic leaders. I'd get irritated when captains of industry, education, or local leaders would posit that the limited background of those who have served impacted their ability to get a job. Or when they'd ask why, with all the resources and money appropriated to various agencies, government isn't solving the problems facing our veterans.
I realize now that this unfamiliarity is driven by the divide between those touched by military service and their neighbors.
In 2010, I co-wrote with Major John Copeland, The Sea of Goodwill, a white paper that described a paradox in which the American people wanted to make a difference in the lives of veterans and military families but just weren't sure how. We proffered that veterans don't come home to big, organized government social programs. They come home to communities. Unfortunately, it is within the very heart of these communities where we must work the hardest to defeat the epidemic of disconnection between military (who represent one half of one percent of all U.S. citizens) and their civilian neighbors.
This month Easter Seals Dixon Center is beginning a campaign to highlight communities as a panacea for veterans and military families. Please keep an eye on this space for suggestions and solutions. I also welcome your comments throughout the month on ways to connect our military and civilians -- from both sides of the coin.
Last year, Admiral Mike Mullen, 17th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "The military becoming more and more isolated from the American people is a disaster for America." To that I'd add that the disconnect he describes is quickly creating missed opportunities on all sides.