11/11/2008 01:19 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Today, Talk About America's Future with a Veteran

Last summer, a friend of mine who is a Marine Corps Reservist shipped out for his second tour in Iraq. He sent a moving email the night he boarded his flight out of the USA--detailing the crowds of well wishers from the community; tearful thank yous and hands clasping his as the Marines walked across the tarmac to their transport. I asked him how that made him feel. Here's his response...

"It's a rather humbling sort of thing to experience, and you really have no idea how to react. It is great to know that what you're doing is so valued. But at the same time, you (or at least I) feel very awkward over the whole thing.

I of course reply with a "thank you". But I also struggle with an appropriate response that conveys that I wish they would do more than just thank me for my service and instead ensure they do service themselves. Do they give money to help wounded vets? Do they deliberately vote and/or take some political action to ensure those who serve are treated appropriately by the government, given all the military (equipment, strategy, leadership) support they need to succeed at their mission, and only sent on missions worthy of the lives they risk in trying to accomplish them?

Even if it were appropriate for me to convey those sentiments (which it might not be) how do you do so in the ten seconds you have to respond, without coming across embittered and resentful to someone who just expressed such heart-felt concern? However, how sincere is such concern, if they are put-off by a (at least a carefully worded) response asking them to do much more than simply express verbal support and to take tangible action? I know a number of my military friends--as well as I--have wrestled with that idea for years, and it becomes more frustrating over time.

And just one more thought on service. I think that we as a society collectively fail to appreciate the service that many others do in other careers. I have tons of friends who have worked in poverty-stricken countries and war zones, not with a rifle, but effectively with a hammer and shovel struggling to put those places back together. Some have willingly gone to Iraq, Kosovo, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Darfur and Kenya without a weapon to defend themselves, yet risking their lives, to help the people there rebuild their worlds. Some of them have friends who were killed doing these jobs in danger zones around the globe. I have other friends who work as cops and as teachers, as firefighters, nurses and philanthropists. My previous co-workers all spend their days with the single-minded desired end-state of making life better, safer and more peaceful for others. I have friends and colleagues who work in government on Capitol Hill or Executive Branch agencies, making 1/3 of the salaries they could get in the business world, in order to help make the country a better place... and so I would just like to say that I think we should spend more time thanking all of them for their efforts, their sacrifices and sometimes their risks to their own lives. I know I'm proud to know them and call them my friends."

This Veteran's Day, Americans have the opportunity to do something more than say "thank you for your service." And the Obama election has opened all sorts of possibilities for improved understanding of our military--and its role in American democracy: From Michelle Obama's commitment to military families (and a promise to continue dialogue with them) to the realization that we need a long-neglected public discussion about the division of labor for national security in today's world.

Despite the nagging sense of unease about US direction in global affairs--most Americans still seem to associate security with the military and bigger defense budgets with purchasing more security. These linked perceptions must be severed, not in a harsh way, but in a persuasive way that points out the ends and the means...that we are not solving problems effectively this way. And besides, the military itself is the biggest evangelist for change--they know better than anyone else that our over-reliance on the use of force has become counter productive. We must find a better balance in our policies.

The military has accrued all sorts of tasks since the end of the Cold War (1991) for many reasons. It has the personnel, it has a "can do" culture, it doesn't actively engage in the policy debates, it is under the command of civilians, it has pretty much all the financial resources, (54% of discretionary budget) it plans ahead of time. It is a thinking organization that hates surprises. etc. etc. And there has been no truly consequential debate on this question of balance between civilian and military for decades. (Civilians are everyone who is NOT in uniform). I sat in on many hearings in Congress in the '90s and the officers coming back from peacekeeping missions would try to talk about cultural-societal observations. Their statements often pointed to the need for low-tech items...things that didn't fit into the sparkly, rocket fixated fantasy life of the Armed Services Committee or the Members' insistence that the commies were still coming. One officer briefed us on the need for mountain bikes for community policing in Bosnia and sewing machines for a women's co-op in Kosovo. This together with the comment that the US government had to ship in gravel for roads in the Balkans because the US tanks were too big... A Justice Department guy told us of the need for uniforms for rehabbing the Somali police because the symbolism just of the uniforms would work wonders for crowd control--these were disjointed, cacophonous tidbits that pointed to dramatic, drastic change. But Congress did not bite.

All this self-imposed ignorance was made worse by the Bush administration's 8 years of frightening Americans for electoral purposes. Such an atmosphere makes critical dialogue about the military--dialogue that ensures the very survival of the institution--seem subversive. So nobody talks.

The lack of seriousness among elected leaders about the military's role in our democracy has put us where we are today: sorely lacking informed public debate on national security and what it means to serve just when today's threats put us beyond the protection of the armed services. The military has done everything we've asked. Now the ball is in the civilian's court. And there is something every individual can do about it. Talk to a veteran about service.

Last June, I co-authored a book with my friend Lt Col Dana Eyre USAR. It's called "A Woman's Guide to Talking About War and Peace" and it offers basic instructions about how to set up a community dialogue with veterans about pressing national issues. It is free online here.