Imagine the following scenarios:
1. You're a sergeant riding shotgun with an Army convoy in Iraq. An improvised explosive device – IED – explodes next to your vehicle and showers you with sand, rocks, and flames. Seriously burned, you pull yourself from the damaged gun truck and wonder what will happen next.
2. You're a crew member of a C-5 Galaxy lifting off from Baghdad International. You hear a loud bang and see warning lights: GENERATOR OUT, LOW PRESSURE ... FIRE. A surface-to-air missile has destroyed one of your engines.
3. You're a young airman billeted at Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia. As you take a shower, you hear a security policeman running down the hall shouting, "Get out! Get out!" That's because he's spotted a truck bomb. A tremendous blast tears open the building and kills 19 of your comrades. Survivors help carry the dead to a makeshift morgue in the chow hall.
America's warrior class
Most Americans will never face situations like this. Less than 1 percent of the US population has served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The all-volunteer military has given us a motivated, highly professional fighting force. But it has also created a warrior class distinct from the rest of society.
Perhaps it has to be this way. According to the group Mission: Readiness, which is made up of retired senior military leaders, 75 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24 are unfit for service. Most are physically unfit, and others have criminal records or inadequate education.
Among those who can make the grade, military service tends to run in families, sometimes for generations. My supervisor in the West Virginia Air National Guard has a great-great-grandfather who earned the Medal of Honor in the Spanish-American War.
I know a pilot who makes mission-related notes in flight on a knee board used by his father in Vietnam. Many of my squadron mates can trace family military history at least back to World War II. Parents wear the uniform alongside sons and daughters.
These family traditions serve the armed forces well, but they keep the burden of war within a narrow group. Those who self-select into the military have become a tribe apart. Sometimes, people who aren't members of our tribe seem not to know what to think of us.
Things could be worse. Thank goodness veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan usually receive only gratitude from civilians. We seldom, if ever, face the mistreatment heaped upon troops returning from Vietnam. While dining in uniform at restaurants, I've had strangers pay for my meals.
That support means more than you know. But occasionally the expressions of support come with a tinge of incomprehension, even pity. "Why did you ever reenlist?" someone once asked me. She was incredulous that anyone who could get out would still choose to serve. Her attitude reflected the way much of society views veterans – as victims.
For understandable journalistic and emotional reasons, media coverage tends to focus on the tragedies. Those stories need telling, but so do some others.
An optimistic approach to service
Let's consider our scenarios again. Each one could have served as the opening sequence to a film about a whacked-out veteran who drinks away his days in existential angst – or worse. But here's what really happened to people who are my friends or mentors in the military:
1. The sergeant wounded by the IED finished his tour and finished his degree. He got an officer's commission and continues to serve as a lieutenant.
2. The C-5 flight engineer helped his crew land the stricken jet safely, though it suffered so much damage it remained grounded for nearly two months. The engineer stayed in the Air Force and continues to fly as an instructor. New crewmen still learn from his experiences and sharpen their skills under his guidance.
3. The young airman at Khobar Towers now serves as a senior noncommissioned officer. He's a father, a leader in his church and community, and one of his unit's most active fliers.
All three re-upped, knowing they'd go back into harm's way. The danger was no longer an abstraction. But neither were the rewards. No other job would give them the chance to contribute so much, in places where they were needed so badly.
Of course, many war stories have worse endings. That's why it's so important that the public acknowledges the sacrifices of military personnel. But most war stories are retold proudly by veterans who view their military experience as the highlight of their working lives.
In the meantime, the US remains involved in two major combat zones. (To troops in Iraq, the drawdown doesn't happen until they get to leave.) Tomorrow's veterans are training today. Please think of them often. Follow the news. Join us if you can. But do not see us as victims.
Thomas W. Young is a flight engineer with the West Virginia Air National Guard and the author of "The Mullah's Storm," a novel set in wartime Afghanistan.