I had the honor of speaking at the annual “Airman of the Year” dinner for a US Air Force wing a few days ago. My tasking was to offer some brief remarks that were motivational and maybe told a story of resiliency. What can a civilian say to the men and women who routinely risk their lives rescuing other military heroes? About resiliency?
I served once, but never in combat. Never in harm’s way. And now I spend my time in the ivory tower of academia, where my greatest risk is frustration when the campus WiFi goes down. Yet I could do something for these airmen that maybe nobody else could do, or maybe nobody is willing to do.
I could tell them the truth about their service.
Consider Afghanistan, and let me ask you a simple question. Has life expectancy increased, decreased, or stayed about the same since the American and British forces, along with other allies, invaded in the weeks after 9/11 and the 18 years since then?
In 2001, according to the World Bank, the life expectancy of an Afghani at birth was 56 years. Today, it is 64 years. That’s more progress than many of the poorest countries in Sub Saharan Africa.
Out of 1000 children born in 2001, 125 died before their fifth birthday in the year 2001. Since the US invasion, the children’s mortality rate in Afghanistan has been cut in half. It is 68 today.
Annual income per person was $1120 in 2001 in Afghanistan, and it has nearly doubled since. Today it is over $1700.
Since 1973, the U.S. military only accepts volunteers. Congress took a gamble that year to end conscription and people the active forces only with young men and, increasingly, young women without a draft. Many admirals and generals opposed the idea, said it would never work. They said that, like most fancy theories from the ivory tower, it was a plan that would work well on paper and crumble on contact with reality. Wait until there’s a real war, and your vaunted “All Volunteer Force” will find itself hollow. Young people will never volunteer in large numbers to go into harm’s way. You’ll see.
Then 9/11 happened, eighteen years ago now. And for eighteen years, young Americans have been raising their hands to take the oath, gritting out basic training, earning stripes and bars, and taking the fight to the enemy. It’s been eighteen years of war, and the quality of enlisted troops in every dimension – mental, physical, moral – is higher than the average civilian. The entire U.S. Army is an elite force, unlike any in the nation’s history. Volunteers all.
This is why my research has uncovered. But there’s something more I shared with the airmen last week.
I’ve heard too many veterans ask, cynically: Did my time in service make a difference? That question breaks my heart, because there’s no reason for the media to ignore this story, but it’s a story that remains hidden.
Yes. Yes, the American troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq and all across the seven seas have not only kept the enemy on its heels, they have continued what their fathers and grandfathers started. They have made the world a better place.