The road to veteran status is long, narrow, bumpy and filled with unexpected twists and turns. It starts for most with an enlistment of three to four years in one of the armed services. It is here that the road narrows. Only one in four Americans is now considered fit for military service. Obesity and the lack of a high school diploma disqualify most applicants, but drug use and criminal records also prevent acceptance.
The "bumps" start immediately as those who qualify for enlistment must meet the test of recruit training, an experience that challenges the aspirant to learn what they are capable of, what they can endure, and what it means to put others first. Discipline, obedience, and character are words that take on new meaning in this process. Depending on the service, some 15 percent of new recruits fail to complete basic training (the Navy has the highest rate of failure).
Having survived the "pot holes" of boot camp, the future veteran next faces the "twists and turns" of frequent moves and deployments, long periods of separation from civilian friends and family, the austere lifestyle of the warrior, and the real prospect that a spouse or loved one may want a different type of life. (For this writer, there were 17 relocations in 21 years, two of which involved year-long family separations, including one in Vietnam.)
In return for these "inconveniences," the average enlisted person, regardless of service, receives less than $2,000 per month in their first 2 to 3 years. Promotion to non-commissioned officer status (which starts at pay grade E-4) is possible within a couple of years for those with ambition and skill. This will increase pay by 10 percent. Rare is the member who rises further than E-5 within their first four years. Thus, most enlisted personnel earn around $30,000 per year by the end of their first enlistment.
Upon taking the oath of enlistment at time of entry to service, each future veteran pledges to defend the Constitution, our society, and our citizens, as our nation's elected leaders direct. Over the course of the last century, these leaders have sent our military into harm's way on 36 different occasions (from worldwide wars to "police actions" in various countries or regions). In all, the American dead and wounded from these conflicts totals more than 1.5 million, a number equivalent to the entire population of cities like Philadelphia or Phoenix. Both in WWI and WWII the number of deaths per day reached nearly 300, or the equivalent of a loaded 747 crashing every day.
A new enlistee, starting down the "road" of military service has no assurance that they will finish the journey and return home. Those taking the oath of enlistment are in effect saying, to our society and its citizens, that they will die for us, if necessary, to protect our country, its values and its people.
This is the reason we need to be appreciative of those who travel this road, and why we need to care about them after their service. So how well are we doing at this:
• Post 9/11 veteran unemployment now stands at 6.2 percent compared to a national rate of 5.7 percent (Sept. 2014).
• Homeless veterans make up 12 percent of the total homeless population.
• The divorce rate for Iran/Afghanistan veterans (some of whom were deployed from 5-7 times) has increased 42 percent over the past five years.
• Every 80 minutes (22 per day) a veteran commits suicide.
• Of 22 million veterans, nearly half (9 million) are dependent upon Veteran Affairs for their health care(!) .
Clearly, too many of today's veterans are without jobs, without homes, without ready access to health care and without hope. We should not, cannot allow this to happen. Those who have pledged their lives to our protection should not now lose them to hopelessness.