The question invariably comes from a boy eager to hear details.
“Hey, Mr. Rice, when you were in the Army, did you ever kill anyone?’ The kid looks so hopeful, and the rest of the class slows down, eyes glistening. It’s a bummer to have to disappoint them.
“And I wasn’t in the Army; I was in the Air Force.”
“What airplanes did you fly?”
“I didn’t fly airplanes. I was enlisted.”
He has no clue. I must explain.
“You have to have a four-year college degree to fly airplanes, and I hated school when I was young and just wanted to get out and see the world.”
The class speeds up, papers shuffling. The boy, with any luck, returns to his classwork. I get the impression they think what I did doesn’t really count as military service.
It does, but I am not here to defend my specific contribution to the nation’s defense. Instead, I want to focus on how this brief exchange and others like it illustrate the wide space between the generation getting ready to put on the uniform and those who are serving or who have served.
I teach at a high school about as far away as you can get from Nellis Air Force Base and still be in the Las Vegas Valley. That geographic distance parallels an even greater gap in understanding between me and my 218 youthful charges. These boys and girls are the next wave of young men and women the military is looking to recruit, and they’re largely ignorant of the expectations, demands and rewards of military service.
I need to be clear about something; my students are never intentionally disrespectful regarding my military service. In fact, most of them go out of their way to thank me. During the week leading up to Veterans’ Day, the student council gets busy with poster paint, and my five other veteran colleagues and I get our doors decorated with stars and stripes. The broadcast journalism kids sometimes do quick video profiles of us. All week long, a student here and there will say, “Thank you, Mr. Rice, for your service.” This is nice of them. Nobody has ever called me a baby killer or spit on me or even glared at me (well, they have glared at me, but not because I am a veteran).
But all this thanking is done without understanding. It’s an ingrained post-9/11 folkway. Indeed, the Pew Research Center’s report on War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era: The Military-Civilian Gap, published in October, found that 76 percent of American civilians have thanked someone in the military for their service, but 71 percent admit to not understanding much about military life. The adults surveyed thank without thinking: It is good enough that somebody else is doing the job, whatever that job entails. But their kids’ misunderstanding comes in two broad, wildly disparate and mildly-amusing-if-it-wasn’t-so-shocking varieties:
1. The military is low-end employment for those who can’t make it in real life.
2. The military is made up of hyper-effective killers: snipers and stealthy throat-cutters.
While I find the first highly inaccurate and insulting and the second highly inaccurate but helpful in maintaining classroom discipline, both these beliefs are indicators of just how out of touch these 16-year-olds are with military life. I remind you of their age because recruiters are already sizing them up as potential soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coasties and Marines.
Fairly often, kids tell me they may end up joining the military, but it is their last option if nothing else works out. And by “nothing else,” they don’t mean getting a rejection letter from Stanford. They mean they can’t get any job at all. Their plan is that, as an absolute last resort, they’ll join the military. Aside from being an insult they didn’t intend to make, this demonstrates a complete failure to understand what the military is, what it does, and what it expects out of its personnel.
To them, the military is a dumping ground. Normally, the kids with this opinion ditch classes, are at risk of dropping out, use drugs recreationally and often have a disciplinary record that includes a stint in juvenile detention. I ask them what they need to do to get in. They don’t know. I explain that the armed services are not there to rehabilitate people; they want young people who have proven themselves to have some basic sense of integrity and self-motivation. A high school diploma is required, although some of the services do allow a certain small number of GED-holders to enlist. Drug use and a criminal record are pretty much deal-killers, unless they are very minor one-time offenses. Their response to this newfound knowledge is predictable:
“That’s bullshit! Can’t you just, like, choose to go in the military instead of going to jail?”
For the record, no. We don’t want you.
For others, everybody in the military is a total badass. We can slip undetected into enemy compounds, kill quickly and silently, and exfiltrate down snowy cliffs. Just like in Call of Duty: Black Ops. They don’t always get it when I explain that I was an aircraft line mechanic and then moved into intelligence, where I read reports, wrote executive summaries and spoke to decision-makers. One kid wanted to make sure the recruiter knew he wanted to fly either A-10s or F-22s because he could fly those really well already. You know, because PC combat flight sims are just like the real thing.
Both views hold the military, and by extension its members, at arm’s length. We are the others, outside the realm of citizens’ daily lives. We are uniform, homogeneous: either a step removed from prison, or superheroes who level up and have unlimited lives. I want to tell that disappointed kid:
Look, man, being in the military can involve killing and dying. But please remember that pulling a trigger was not an everyday event for the 21.8 million veterans or the close to 3 million active and reserve members currently serving. They are not ninjas. Nor are they losers who couldn’t score a job in retail. They work hard and get a paycheck. They go on dates, have their hearts broken, get married. They go to school plays and hope they won’t be deployed when their son plays his first varsity football game.
They are you.