When Soldiers and Sailors Die

(this blog was first published by the author on Medium)

This week General John Kelly took to the podium to explain his experience when informed of his son’s death in combat as part of an attempt to defend Trump’s clumsy and insensitive statements to the grieving family of Sgt. La David Johnson — a soldier killed recently in Niger.

It may make sense to comfort family members whose children willingly joined the military to serve because that’s what they “wanted to do” as General Kelly explained; but that perspective is not representative of everyone on active duty today.

Many of the men and women serving in enlisted ranks did voluntarily sign up — they were not conscripted, but they are not all “doing what they love”.

If we examine the demographics of the typical enlisted person we must ask the question: how many of them had other options out of high school?

“Once again, we’re staring at the painful story of young people with fewer options bearing the greatest burden” — Greg Speeter, Executive Director of the National Priorities Project referring to America’s military engagements since Iraq, Afghanistan.

With the price tag of higher education sky-rocketing out of reach for the middle class, manufacturing and other living wage jobs largely a thing of the past — especially in much of the nation’s rural areas — the options are limited for many young people and the military is often a last resort. It’s a respectable choice, certainly but for many it’s not a choice they would make if they had access to other opportunities.

How many young people serving today made the choice to serve their country as a soldier, sailor, airman or marine primarily because they had few other alternatives?

How many knew the risks, but also knew that if they wanted to provide for their families, there were few other choices for them?

There may not be a Vietnam era style draft taking place right now, but don’t be deluded into thinking that everyone serving today is there because that’s what they want to do.

The fact is there’s an economic “draft” in place right now that forces many young people from the most vulnerable neighborhoods and social classes to weigh their chances in this unstable world against the opportunity to get money for college, learn a trade or skill or simply afford to live.

So, with all due respect to General Kelly; telling the family of a fallen military member that they died doing what they love should never be the default message.

All of our fallen military members are heroes. But too often that lost sailor or ambushed soldier represents broken dreams, lost hope and yet another reminder of the terrible realities that people on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder face every day.

– – – – –

Author’s note: I served in the US Navy as an enlisted person and saw, firsthand, the impact on people swept up in the economic “draft” that exists still today.

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