Most civilians have little understanding of servicemembers or military issues in general. Less than half of American civilians report having socialized with a service member or spouse in their lifetime. Worse yet, civilians are largely indifferent to military affairs—polls indicate civilians are more likely to answer “I don’t know” or “no opinion” to questions regarding military policies than they are for most other issues. Many servicemembers, for their part, often see themselves as apart from, rather than a part of, the American public. A retired Army colonel, recalling the advice of one of his mentors, put it aptly: “The longer you stay in uniform, the less you will really understand about the country you protect … you may defend democracy, but you won’t understand it or be part of it. What’s more, you’ll always be a stranger to your own society. That’s the sacrifice you’ll be making.”
Neither attitude is healthy. Democracy thrives on informed voters casting votes for representatives who exercise control over the military—some suggest that heads of state who are more involved in military affairs tend to be more successful in wartime. Servicemembers, likewise, can be tempted to ignore many of the problems which plague the American public. The bitter battle over health care went largely unnoticed in military circles, where service members and their families benefit from government-funded medical care. Thousands of people stood in the cold for hours to receive no-cost dental procedures this past year—for most troops, annual dental exams can be a nuisance. And state and local taxes? Thanks to lax tax laws, servicemembers can often avoid paying state and local income tax. These issues barely register for many military service members—but they do for most Americans.
But while it’s tempting to dismiss domestic issues, veterans must understand that most of the issues which affect America will ultimately affect the military. U.S. servicemembers are drawn from a society where nearly three-quarters of the public do not meet the minimum standards to enlist in the military—and much of that is due to thorny issues such as health care, teenage pregnancy, poor health, juvenile delinquency, and childhood obesity. When the Defense Department announces that it wants to add thousands of cyber warriors to its ranks or makes sweeping statements about tech savvy millennial soldiers, it often does so unaware that there is a profound digital divide in our country, where many American teens grow up with insufficient computer skills. When the military cites obesity as one of the main disqualifiers for military service—and a cause for booting thousands from the services each year—servicemembers should be aware of the myriad factors which drive obesity in both civilian and military life.