Dedication is visible among new soldiers
As the nation honors veterans, the next generation looks more diverse and professional.
WASHINGTON — On a day when the warriors of America's past will talk of great sacrifices long remembered and old friends not forgotten, a new generation of soldiers deployed to the far corners of the Middle East is beginning to pencil in the first lines of its own story.
It is already obvious that this is a force unlike any America has sent to war - older, more diverse, and all volunteers. But gradually, the ways in which these wars spawned by Sept. 11 are shaping these troops are also becoming apparent.
In the midst of a war with no clear endpoint, the ultimate judgment of this generation of fighters must wait for Veterans Days to come. But if World War II veterans were perceived to be the greatest generation and Vietnam's conscripts a lost generation, then those who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan today could be called the dedicated generation - convinced of America's cause and determined to shepherd it through days of dust and destruction.
It is perhaps most apparent in reenlistment rates, which continue to exceed the Pentagon's goals more than four years into the war on terror. Yet more deeply, military sociologists suggest that this war is having a profound and unique effect on many men and women, putting them face to face with the struggle for freedom and giving them a greater sense of purpose.
That war should be a life-changing experience is hardly a surprising thought. But in his interviews with troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Morten Ender of the United States Military Academy notes that three-quarters of them describe their deployment as a "turning point" - a number that strikes him as high.
"In World War II, soldiers knew what they had to do, and they wanted to do it and come home to get on with life," he says. "In Vietnam, [the war] became a turning point, because there was a sense [among the conscripted soldiers] that they had no control."
Since the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are all volunteers, the war was very much part of a conscious career choice, and the intensity of the experience is focusing their lives. For some, it is a desire to get out and move on to anything else. Yet the reenlistment rates also suggest that many are finding a deeper love for service and a connection to something greater than themselves.
"It really did open my eyes," says Spc. Ryan Snyder, a military policeman, of his year in Iraq. "I realized how lucky we are as American citizens."
He is one of that class of recruits who signed up after Sept. 11, and he has already reenlisted. In fact, his division - the 1st Cavalry - made 125 percent of its reenlistment goals after returning from the Middle East.
In many ways, a portrait of the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan is a portrait of how the all- volunteer force has changed the military. Demographically, this force has opened the military to more women and, more recently, it has seen a drop in the overrepresentation of blacks. But significantly, it has also created a professional force capable of greater sophistication - partly because everyone wants to be there.
"None of us entered this machine without knowing in our heart of hearts that we may have to go to war," writes Capt. Christopher Connors in an e-mail from Afghanistan. "That is why it is the Army, not the Boy Scouts."
The result is a military that - despite incidents like Abu Ghraib - is more disciplined than those of the past, say analysts. Since the beginning of the war on terror, there have been only two cases of "fragging" - killing an officer - compared with hundreds during Vietnam, says Dr. Ender.
Moreover, soldiers have been able to reprogram their skills to the task required, whether it's fighting insurgents or collecting trash.
"The American soldier of today is more adaptable than the American soldier of the past, in part because America is requiring them to be so," says David Segal, a sociologist at the University of Maryland in College Park.
The American soldier of today is also older and more likely to have a spouse and children than those who fought in the past, particularly in Vietnam. Never before has the military relied so heavily on the National Guard and Reserves, which comprise many older soldiers who join after leaving active duty.
"This military is more deeply embedded in the communities from which it is coming than the one in Vietnam," says Dr. Segal. "More family members are left behind. Employers are losing their workers; communities are losing their soccer coaches."
Yet the trend has shaped the Army as much as it has the communities left behind. Captain Connors saw it firsthand during a stint in Iraq, where the father of two was supporting a National Guard unit.
"The Iraqi people around the Forward Operation Base used to say that these 'soldiers are different than the other ones,' " he writes. "Many [members of the Guard unit] had jobs where they had constant contact with a civilian population, allowing them to learn techniques that did not involve direct confrontation."
To Master Sgt. Lanie Ray Vickers, a reservist, experience also brings a different perspective. Sergeant Vickers served one tour in Vietnam as a draftee and is now in Iraq as a member of the 490th Civil Affairs Battalion. To him, the distinction between the draftees of Vietnam who simply wanted to finish their tour and the soldiers of this generation could not be greater.
"I've talked to many of these kids on their second tour, and they talk about, 'When I reenlist ...' " says Vickers by phone. "When you see that kind of dedication - when they know what's out there - it makes an old soldier like me proud to be an American."