Now is when the image of today's generation of veterans is being formed, and Americans need to have a dialogue on what that image will be, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Oct. 1 at Kansas State University.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said he believes the conversation among Americans about today's veterans has started.
"I'm just trying to turn up the volume a bit," he added.
Dempsey delivered the Landon Lecture at Kansas State University, and used the prestigious platform to focus attention on the dialogue.
Each generation of Americans has formed an image of its veterans. Dempsey spoke of the way America thought of the veterans who fought in Europe and the Pacific during World War II and that generation's post-war contributions. Americans also formed images of their veterans returning from Korea and Vietnam.
"Every generation of Americans does that, and it's now time for us," the chairman said.
Today's veterans have shown courage, resilience, resolve and adaptability, and this must be taken into account as Americans form their image of this generation, he said.
To an extent, the veterans of today are no different from their predecessors.
"We are America's sons and daughters from all across the country, from all walks of life, from myriad backgrounds," Dempsey said.
Today, more than 2 million service members in all components are "proud to wear the cloth of their country and to go wherever, and do whatever we need to do to serve in peace and in war. That's enduring," the chairman said.
But some things set this generation apart from earlier ones, Dempsey noted. This military is an all-volunteer force. Only one in four young Americans even qualify to serve in the military, and this means there is a smaller number of Americans with first-hand military experience than in past generations.
"That's got to mean something to the nation," he said. The force is mostly married, Dempsey added, a sea change from his early years in the Army.
And, "as of a few months ago, we now are serving in the longest conflict in our nation's history," he said. "We've asked probably the most significant contribution, over time, from our reserve components," he said. And most service members have served numerous tours in combat.
The wars they are fighting are different from those in the past, the nation's top military officer said, and the asymmetric nature of the current battle means that any place is at risk with no real place of safety for an in-country break.
"When you are in it, you are in it," he said. "Think about a young man or woman on patrol in parts of Afghanistan today, where the underground buried mine is a prevalent form of warfare. (They) exhibit incredible courage on the one hand, but there is incredible anxiety on the other, not knowing whether your next step could potentially be your last."
Page 2 of 2 - A veteran coming out of Iraq or Afghanistan "goes from life at Mach 4 to something far slower and somewhat more muted," the chairman said. "When I look at how we prepare veterans to move into civilian society, … there's some work we can do."
Understanding who veterans are and what pressures they underwent for the country is a part of the discussion, but vets themselves have a responsibility in the dialogue, Dempsey said.
"We all say thanks to (service members), but how often do we take the time to ask them to share their experiences, and how often are (they) willing to share their experiences?" he asked.
Many times, even the toughest of veterans will say that coming home is even tougher than being in the combat zone, the chairman said.
"It's the emotional fear of constantly having to reintegrate with your family as they grow while you are not there," he said. "There is in combat a singular focus — you know exactly what you have to do. Your purpose is defined, your mission is clear, the enemy will always try to confuse you, there will be fog and friction, but you have a sense of clarity that's uncanny. Coming home, it is tough to reconcile that."
Overall, the chairman said, the image of today's veterans is positive.
"The veterans of the past decade have each in their own way served heroically — but they are not all heroes," Dempsey said. "Many have experienced real horrors of war — but they are not all victims. All have served America and want to continue to serve her as they transition into your civilian communities."
Given what these veterans have done for America, it is in the country's best interest "that we allow this generation of veterans to contribute, to bring their strengths and their passionate curiosity," he said. "To the extent that we all agree we want a stronger America, then we ought to find a way to ensure that these veterans are a part of it and work with them."
Ultimately, who these veterans are and the image of them that Americans share "is a question that must be answered by them and by the nation that sent them to war," Dempsey said.