All-Volunteer Military Placing Strain on Troops and Families

January 25, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks at the American Legion Conference Aug. 31, 2010 in Milwaukee, Wisc. Secretary Gates, himself, acknowledged that going back to compulsory service, in addition to being politically impossible, is highly impractical. (Jim Watson-Pool/Getty Images)
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks at the American Legion Conference Aug. 31, 2010 in Milwaukee, Wisc. Secretary Gates, himself, acknowledged that going back to compulsory service, in addition to being politically impossible, is highly impractical. (Jim Watson-Pool/Getty Images)
Barry Searle arrived at boot camp at two in the morning. His head was shaven and he handed in his belongings for a pillow and a blanket. Lying on his cot, the 19-year-old watched the rain beat against the window, knowing this would be his home for the next eight weeks.

He said just the day before, he was out having fun and doing as he pleased, then “Suddenly, here I was on my own. Anybody who has ever gone in the military will tell you they remember that first day in boot camp.”

Now 59, Searle is the American Legion director of National Security and Foreign Relations, and a proud veteran. He says looking back now he sees the value in the difficulties he faced.

“It was hard,” he said. “The military was hard right up until the day that I left. It’s the way it is. But there is teamwork and a sense of belonging.”

Searle said he is concerned, however, about a current disconnect between military and civilian populations that appears to be growing. His sentiment is shared by some military leaders and is a factor placing heavy pressure on troops.

The all-volunteer military is an experiment that began near the end of the Vietnam War in 1973. Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained that although successful, the all-volunteer military was not meant for the forms of war the United States currently faces.

“The all-volunteer force conceived in the 1970s was designed to train, prepare, and deploy for a major and quick conventional conflict,” yet the current campaigns “have required prolonged, persistent combat and support from across the military,” Gates said during a Sept. 29, 2010, speech at Duke University, the Department of Defense American Forces Press Service (AFPS) reported.

He noted that although the services are meeting their recruitment quotas, “in some cases the highest propensity to re-enlist is found in units that are in the fight.”

Currently, less than 1 percent of America’s population is fighting its wars. This has placed more strain on troops, “and especially on their families,” Gates said, adding that strain from multiple deployments is leading to divorce, troubled homes lives, and stress on the children of service members.

Troubled relationships are also the most common factor found among troops who committed suicide, according to a military report.

The United States is trying to lessen the burden on the families of service members, which may prove to reduce troop suicides. The Obama administration unveiled a new campaign to support military families on Jan. 24.

The four-point initiative will give better psychiatric care to military families, better education for children, more readily available child care, as well as career and education opportunities for military spouses.

President Barack Obama said he was told such an initiative was needed by troops during his trip to Afghanistan last month. “Without missing a beat, they looked me in the eye and they gave me their answer,” Obama said, AFPS reported. “It wasn’t about more equipment. It wasn’t about more resources on the battlefield. In fact, it wasn’t about them.”

“They said, to a man: ‘Sir, take care of our families,’” Obama said. “‘If we know our families are all right back home, then we can do our jobs.’”

Growing Distance

Secretary Gates, himself, acknowledged, “Going back to compulsory service, in addition to being politically impossible, is highly impractical,” yet there is a widening gap between military and civilian populations, and those who typically enlist are individuals with family who also served.

Barry Searle voiced his concern; “There runs a potential for a separation between the civilian population and the military, which we’re seeing now. … There is a lack of understanding, a lack of empathy between the two groups—the ones who have served and the ones that didn’t.”

He said this disconnect concerns him, as people may be more prone to jump to going to war if it doesn’t affect them or their loved ones. “The point being that right now when you have an all-volunteer Army and the people down the road know nobody who has been in the military, there’s nobody in town being impacted by it,” he said.

Losing touch with the military culture is also a concern. Fang Wong, a leading candidate to become the next national commander of the American Legion, said after serving in the military, people are “ better able to deal with reality in this society” as “after going into a situation where you work with each other, you depend on each other.”

“We have too many people just thinking about themselves, but in the military, you need to think of other people too because that other person may save your life, or you may have to save that individual’s life,” he said. “You learn to trust people and you learn to be able to live with other people. I think that’s important.”

Norman Zuckerman, American Ex-Prisoners of War State Department commander, said he doesn’t have a strong opinion about the all-volunteer military as “There should be enough incentive for people to join without having to draft them.”

He said, however, that the experience helped him grow, and has value that today’s society could benefit from. “When I was young, many years ago, I had never left home,” he said. “I was just a kid and I was 18 years old, and drafted, and boom—I’m in the war.”

“I don’t think it brings out the feeling of patriotism. I think it brings out the feeling that you did something,” he said.

He added that having served in the military, and having witnessed the horrors of World War II, he pays more attention to international affairs. “You’re interested in the opinion of countries versus other countries, what’s going to happen next year, and not just ‘what’s the president going to do now?’ That type of thing,” he said.

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