Imagine standing on the sidelines of a summer league lacrosse match in an upper-middle-class suburb somewhere in the Northeast, chatting with parents about upcoming vacation plans, their children's struggles finding summer jobs, and which teachers to avoid. Want to bring the conversation to an awkward silence? Just ask if any of their teens have considered serving in the military.
Military service has become a taboo subject in many corners of America; supported in principle by the ubiquitous yellow ribbon car magnets, yet silently considered to be outside the realm of "enlightened options" for an educated young person.
This sentiment is reinforced by college administrators who block ROTC programs from campuses, while asserting that their institution, "has the utmost respect for the men and women who serve our country in the military."
A recent MoveOn.org advertisement depicts a mother declaring that her baby son "Alex" will not serve in the military. The underlying assumption is that military service is an implicitly bad choice. On college campuses, when the ethical call to forsake corporate salaries and serve the greater good is made, military service is rarely mentioned by faculty and public figures.
What is the reason for this dismissive view of military service? The root lies in the misconception that the military is the bastion of those who are pro-war and anti-peace. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Most decent human beings hate war. However, the soldier hates it with the depth of knowing firsthand the suffering, destruction, and long-term cost of armed conflict.
Another underlying root cause for this view is the idea that the military is devoid of critical thinking – that it is a culture of obeying direct orders and nothing more. Again, this type of assumption belies a deep naiveté. Problems on today's battlefield are often too complex for that kind of robotic interaction.
Finally, many institutes of higher education use opposition to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy as a reason to discourage young adults from serving. Why don't these same educators and administrators bar members of Congress, the legislative body that crafts such policies, from visiting campus? Let's remember that the policy is set by civilian leaders. If anyone is to be targeted it should be them.
Regardless of one's political leanings, class, education, race, or aspirations, military service is a valid way to answer John F. Kennedy's timeless call to "ask what you can do for your country." It is not a call to serve that goes out to only one specific region or one type of town. It is not a civic duty reserved for young adults who have few options in life, as some depictions would suggest. And it is certainly not a betrayal of the ideals of independent thought cultivated in our nation's universities.
The new security dynamics of the 21st century demand that we leave behind perceived divisions between military and civilian culture, and move away from those ideas formulated in the 1970s – ideas that unfortunately still resonate strongly with those who influence my generation.
Serving in the armed forces is giving back to the nation, accepting personal risk in contributing to the well-being and safety of others. It is no less honorable than participating in PeaceCorps, AmeriCorps, Teach for America, or other service organizations marketed toward young adults. Certainly it is as critically important to the future of our nation and our nation's standing in the world.
Americans must ask themselves what it means to "support the troops" while sending messages that convey a sense of disbelief at the idea that an ambitious high school junior would want to join Army ROTC in college. Or, check themselves when they claim to "respect those who serve" while responding with a look of confusion when a dean's list biology major remarks that she is going to go through the Officer Candidates Course to become a marine.
Such reactions expose the need for Americans to reform preconceived notions and place the armed forces back where they belong, as a legitimate, compelling, and satisfying form of national service.
Colleen Reiss is an Army ROTC graduate and an Army officer currently deployed with the 20th Engineer Brigade (Combat)(Airborne) in Iraq. The views expressed are her own and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the US Army or Department of Defense.