Contributed by Terry Rice.
In just a few days, we will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, a war in which 65 million soldiers from 30 nations fought for four years resulting in the deaths of over 20 million people. Hostilities ended at 11 AM on November 11th, 1918 following the signing of an armistice between the Allied powers and Germany. The anniversary of that agreement has been observed every year since then. At first, Armistice Day was meant to celebrate and promote peace while honoring those that had served in World War I. In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower renamed the anniversary to Veterans Day and expanded the honorees to include those who served in World War II and the Korean War. More recently, Veterans Day has become a day where we acknowledge and honor anyone who has served in the US Armed Forces. But for me as a Veteran, November 11th is a time for reflection.
Veterans day reminds me that I come from a long tradition of military service. I have more than a dozen relatives that have served or continue to serve, including my father who spent 22 years as a non-commissioned officer in the US Army. In that tradition, I ended up going to West Point and serving 10 years as a US Army Officer. One of the proudest moments of my life was when my father rendered me my first salute.
Veterans Day is an opportunity for those of us that have served to be a bridge to others that have little to no experience with the military. Numerous studies have shown that there is an increasing divide between the military and the civilian communities. Today less than 0.5% of the US population currently serves on active duty, an historic low, making it unlikely for the average person to have any interaction with someone who is serving. Military base consolidation over the last few decades has only exacerbated the issue, to the point that about half of the 1.3 million active duty personnel live in massive, self-contained military bases in just five states: California, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia. Furthermore, today’s recruits disproportionately come from families where a parent or close relative has served, thus perpetuating the isolation.
This divide makes it harder for the citizens of the US to effectively exercise civilian control over the military when voting on candidates and military related issues. At the same time, the isolation also makes it hard for the military to reflect society’s priorities, if the military increasingly becomes a secluded warrior class. Therefore it is important for those of us who have served and now live in non-military communities to share what it is like to be in the armed forces, to identify and explain the challenges our service members face, to explain the impact that seventeen continuous years of combat have had on our military, and to continuously debunk myths that arise about the military.
The Shift in Veterans’ Political Affiliations
The latter point is one that I have dealt with quite a bit recently. I am constantly amazed by how many people upon hearing that I am a former Army Officer immediately assume I am a Republican. This faulty assumption holds true across the political spectrum; people tend to think members of the military vote staunchly Republican; especially members of the officer corps. While it is true that the military generally leans Republican, which is reflective of the higher percentage of men and recruits from rural areas, recent years have seen a significant increase in military members affiliating as Independents. Almost all of that shift has come from members formerly identifying as Republican. In fact, one recent survey showed nearly 40 percent of the military no longer affiliates with either major party and that percentage appears to be increasing.
Those of us who have served need to make sure we are engaged with our elected officials. Just as the percentage of Americans who are veterans has declined, so has the share of Congress members with prior military service. Currently, only about 20% of Congress members have any prior military service. When one considers active-duty experience (not just Reserve status), the numbers are significantly less. This is a significant decrease from 65% just just a few decades ago.
Given the tremendous authority Congress has over military, it is critical that veterans communicate with their senators and representatives either directly (e.g., phone calls, letters, and in person meetings) or indirectly through veterans’ advocacy groups. Veterans Day is a great time to initiate or re-initiate this contact. Veterans should also consider voting for the significant number of veterans running for Congress in 2018 — many of whom are running as Democrats.
Immigrants in the US Military
Those of us who happen to be both Veterans and immigrants must get involved in the current debate on immigration. While many people may assume that intersection is very small, the Migration Policy Institute estimates there are approximately 511,000 immigrant Veterans of the US military, including those from Mexico (16%) and the Philippines (13%). Currently, the appalling treatment of immigrant service members and their families threatens the security of the United States. The current administration is planning to cancel the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program that allows certain legal immigrants with critical skills such as strategic languages, key technical competencies, or medical education to earn green cards via military service. More than 10,000 soldiers have entered this program since 2009. The administration is considering the cancellation of more than 1,000 contracts with individuals that were planning to enter the military in the coming year. Many, if not most of these individuals will have to return to their home countries. This would be a significant loss of critical talent when the military has a hard time recruiting these skills. This country has a long history of immigrants serving in the armed forces particularly during times of conflict. In fact, more than 20% of the Congressional Medal of Honor recipients were immigrants including at least one, Silvestre Herrera, who was “undocumented.”
Even more disturbing is the fact that as many as 11,800 current service members are now dealing with the possibility of having a spouse of family member deported after a recent change to immigration policy. Some of these family members have been in the US for decades and saw their service member deploy to Iraq and/or Afghanistan multiple times. These actions will likely separate families and significantly reduce the mission readiness of these service members while they focus on the challenge these cases.
“…Against All Enemies, Foreign and Domestic”
Finally, all of us who took the oath of office “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, against all enemies, foreign and domestic” must be outspoken about the domestic threats that are increasingly menacing our country. The rise of racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, nationalism, and other philosophies of fear and hate have the potential to significantly damage or even destroy this amazing country. We cannot stand by quietly as individuals inspired by these hateful ideologies engage in horrific actions as occurred in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and mail facilities across the US. This is not normal. We need to get out and exercise our constitutional responsibility to vote. When necessary, we must protest peacefully, yet vocally, against the worst instincts of the people and institutions inciting violence. We must also be alert and aware of potential acts of violence and report them to law enforcement immediately. We must do what we can to repel these emerging domestic enemies.
In closing, Veterans Day, was originally designed as a day to commemorate service and to promote peace. On this hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I, we should honor our veterans for their selfless service, and think about how we can ensure peace and stability in the United States. I know that is what I will be thinking about on November 11th.
Terry Rice is a graduate of West Point and former Captain in the US Army where he served with the 101st Airborne Division and US Forces Korea.