Memorial Day

I went down to the Washington mall for Memorial Day wearing my Korean War ribbons, and met some nice, appreciative people at the Korean War Memorial. We did not receive many parades when we returned from Korea - it was only a "police action" after all - but neither did we encounter the hostility that met many returning veterans of the Vietnam War. Now we have dignified memorials for World War II, Korea and Vietnam within a mortar shot of each other, which I believe is a good thing.

What is not so good is the lingering estrangement of the American people from the military that was born in the wake of Vietnam and the highly unpopular draft that sent many thousands of reluctant warriors to Southeast Asia. In reaction to that most unpopular conflict Congress created the volunteer army which solved the problem, at least for a while. But now that we are locked into seemingly endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, that small volunteer force is beginning to fray at the edges. I know many veterans who have been obliged to return to the war zones time after time. Some have served 10 or more tours of duty.

One has to know first-hand the stress of combat to appreciate what that means. You are living under constant stress listing to explosions left and right, watching your friends get blown up by improvised explosive devices, wondering when your time will come. A growing number of these beleaguered volunteers are coming home with post-traumatic stress. I don't like to call it disorder. It is a perfectly orderly response to a disorderly situation. Human beings are simply not designed to deal with that level of stress year after year.

Recently, the National Commission on the Future of the Army, concluded a review of the Army and its mission at the behest of Congress. The Commission's report is intelligent and makes many sensible recommendations. The critical challenge of course is funding for a total force of 980,000 soldiers, including 450,000 Regular Army, 335,000 Army National Guard and 195,000 Army Reserve, which the Commission found "minimally sufficient."

What we have here is a "thin gray line" representing less than 1 percent of our nation's population. We have an awful lot riding on the backs of these heroes and at a minimum we need to support them. My own sense is that we need to maintain a small cadre of highly-trained professional soldiers backed by a larger population of National Guard and Reserves. The architects of the invasion of Iraq did our country a great disservice when they decided to avoid addressing the cost of that misadventure by pillaging the National Guard and Reserves, both in terms of people and equipment.

It is all well and good to honor our defenders on Memorial Day, but we should honor them every day. And if we truly intend to defend our freedom, we need to rebuild the National Guard and Reserves, and come up with creative ways to make military service attractive and rewarding - such as higher pay, better benefits and more sophisticated opportunities for advanced education and career training.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.