McLean column: War on the cheap is unfair to those who serve
A few years ago I sat next to a Marine major reservist on a flight to Denver. A Wyoming native, he was on leave from his seventh deployment to either Iraq or Afghanistan. A civil engineer by trade, his career was on hold. He said that his company always gave him his job back as a project engineer but that he could never be promoted to project manager because he was deployed so frequently.
With all that combat time, I asked why he didn’t go full time, regular Marine Corp. He told me that they would not permit him to stay on active duty after his combat deployments. I did not ask or know if he could have resigned his commission. However, I do know that had he done so, he would have lost future retirement benefits.
When my uncle, a World War II veteran, died in Montrose, the local National Guard provided military honors at his funeral. When I asked after the services what they were doing, I was told that they were preparing for deployment to Afghanistan in a few weeks.
We often hear that America is tired of war. Certainly that Marine major was tired of war. Montrose is probably tired of war as a large percentage of its police and fire department was on that deployment. Do the rest of us even know that we are at war?
Less than 1 percent of Americans serve in the military right now. Few of us personally know someone who is in combat or has served in combat. Unlike WWII, we have no rationing of gasoline, nylons, tires, cars or sugar. Unlike Vietnam, the wars are not on television every night. Those of us in Garfield County have a greater chance of knowing someone who serves or has served because a higher percentage of military service comes from the smaller towns of Western and Southern America, but the percentage is still small.
The last time mainland U.S. truly knew war was the Civil War more than 150 years ago. The last time a foreign Army invaded the United States was the British invasion in the War of 1812. The Japanese in WWII invaded our territories in Guam, the Philippines, the Aleutian Islands and various other islands but never landed on U.S. mainland soil. We are fortunate that geography protected us from the horrors of an invasion by a foreign army.
The vast majority of soldiers in the Civil War on both sides came from state militias, the predecessor for the National Guard. In 1916, during WWI, the National Guard became the official title for state militias. Approximately 117,000 Guard soldiers fought in WWI. In WWII, the initial troops thrown into battle in Bataan and Europe were National Guard. The U.S. did not maintain a large standing army until after WWII. Today, approximately 40 percent of the troops serving in Afghanistan or Iraq are National Guard or reserves.
These guardsmen and reservists are capable, dedicated soldiers who volunteer to serve and often volunteer to deploy. They continue the tradition of civilian soldiers in the U.S. military.
In the case of Afghanistan, a war that has lasted 16 years, it seems that this concept of war on the cheap is not fair to those few who serve. They carry on a fight with little support from the American population. One may say, “Thank you for your service,” but does one really have a concept of what that service is?
Congress should have funded a standing army capable of fighting that war in Afghanistan without continued use of reserves. In WWI and WWII, the reserves were integrated into regular army units as soon as possible. Why didn’t we do that in Afghanistan or Iraq? It seems that while the soldiers have fought well and bravely, they are unappreciated by the population at large and not supported by our politicians.
The Guard and reservists do not get the same benefits as regular military. From the Military Instep, a publication to assist recent amputees: “Reserve component amputee service members whose COAR (Continuation on Active Reserve) is approved have special challenges with regard to their benefits.” A Guard soldier who suffers a wound resulting in amputation does not receive the same benefits as a regular soldier.
Only last year, 2016, after a contentious debate, did Congress grant National Guard and Reserves status as veterans after an honorable discharge or retirement.
Why do we continue to deploy the Guard and Reserves? First, we do not have a standing military capable of adequately covering our worldwide commitments. Second, it is cheaper. When the Marine major is off deployment, he is no longer paid. He does not retire at 20 years. He has no benefits when he is not on active duty.
We can do better. There should be a limit on deployments or additional benefits should be earned for multiple deployments. Any military personnel when wounded should be treated equally. Wounded Reservists or Guard should be eligible for equal treatment and therapy as long as needed.
They wear the same uniform and fight the same fight.
Roland McLean, an Aspen Glen resident, is a University of Colorado graduate, Navy veteran and retiree after more than 30 years in international construction. His column appears on the fourth Thursday of each month. Reach him at email@example.com.