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.
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: