This Memorial Day, KPCC is starting a conversation about the growing military-civilian divide in the United States.
Since the draft ended in 1973, fewer and fewer Americans have served in the armed forces or know someone in their family who has joined the military.
- Less than one percent of U.S. residents currently serve in the armed forces.
- In 2016, seven percent of U.S. adults were veterans, down from 18 percent in 1980.
- 15 percent of young adults have parents who served, compared to 40 percent in 1995.
The Department of Defense sees the widening gap as a recruiting problem that could endanger future military readiness. In February, the Pentagon launched an outreach campaign to raise awareness among civilians and battle misconceptions about the military.
Starting in May, KPCC asked you to share your relationship to the armed forces and how it shapes your understanding of military members.
We’re calling the conversation “All Volunteer,” and we want to hear from both sides of the civilian-military divide. We've already heard from a number of military members, past and present - but we'd also like to hear from civilians too.
We're reading all the survey responses and gathering selected answers here. Some have been edited for length and clarity:
What does Memorial Day mean to you? How do you observe it?
It’s a day to remember people who died in combat or during service as well as people who served in wars past. I usually try to take off work and tell friends a story of a man I knew who died in a training accident in Germany. I also like to go out to dinner, talk about the significance of the day, drink beer and toast veterans we have lost since I believe they would want us to do that.
- Mark Combs, Army veteran, Southgate, CA
I usually do a BBQ where I take my time and make lots of food. I invite as many folks as possible. I also home brew beer. A few years back I made a beer, an IPA, and called it the 87th. It was to remember the 87 KIA Marines when I was in Iraq. I always have a table setting where no one sits as a memorial for the ones who could not be there.
- Tarin Almstedt, Marine Corps veteran, Fullerton, CA
Memorial Day is about the the brave men & women who gave their all in defense of freedom and our way of life. A time to pay respect and say a prayer of thanks for the freedoms and rights we enjoy today. I also hear from a lot of people on social media thanking me for my service. I politely say 'thank you,' but today is not about me. Go to Arlington National Cemetery or any National Cemetery. There are also many brave men & women who were buried at sea during combat.
- Francisco Gomez, Marine Corps veteran, Twentynine Palms, CA
If you served, what’s the one big thing you wish civilians knew about people who serve in the armed forces?
People in the military need more than lip service. I am sick to death of that. They need medical care, reintegration to civilian life, support. Letting vets go homeless is disgraceful. Allowing old military bases to be bought and rented by real estate moguls should stop and those properties, especially ones like the Presidio of San Francisco, where I served, should be used to house homeless vets in areas which are urban and close to support services and cheap mass transit.
- Erle Hall, Army and Reserves veteran, Riverview, CA
Most people don't understand the sacrifice of being a vet. Not just a lost limb from an IED, but PTSD, long family separations, low pay, and frequent danger. I think the military is respected these days but the sacrifice they make is not widely recognized.
- Steve Wilson, Vietnam and Gulf War combat veteran, Raleigh, NC
There are countless stories of success in addition to the “Ain’t it awful” Veteran story and stigma of PTS (Post-Traumatic Stress). Generations of Veterans continue to lead the way and to have a meaningful impact on the world… Yes, some Veterans need increased support and assistance as they make their way through difficult things and their care and support should be ever-present in the national conscience as well, but there sometimes seems to be an unfair negative perception of Veterans. Also, I wish more people understood the challenges of military families and caregivers and could offer increased support.
- Tess Banko, veteran, 10-year active duty military spouse and military suicide widow, Los Angeles, CA
What a hardship on families. We have been at war almost my whole life. I’m 67. The public has no idea what this has cost military families. The lousy medical care in the military, only eclipsed by the crap the VA puts them through.
- Kirke Warren, son and parent of military veterans, Norco, CA
Military members and families: Do you feel supported by your civilian community?
Most civilians want to be supportive, they just don't know how it seems. When I am in uniform it's clear who is supportive and who isn't... I tell people that if they want to be supportive that saying "Thank you for your service" seems overdone these days. Just say "Hi, how's it going?" That tells me you want to show your support, but it seems genuine to us, not just an obligatory statement.
- Brian Grubbs, Navy veteran and current reservist, Fair Oaks, CA
Is there anything else you’d like journalists to know about this issue?
The Navy showed more confidence and insights in my managerial, and technical capabilities than my high school guidance counselor, or any of my friends. They saw/recognized something in me that others, including me, had not. To a certain degree that recognition, encouragement, etc. was in a large part responsible for my eventual success in life.
- Navy veteran Dennis Wagner, Minneapolis, MN
Fewer and fewer people are serving these days. As much as I opposed the draft when I was young, if we wish to maintain the position of the US in the world into the future, we may have to re-institute the draft to do it....I'd be interested in some form of national service for all, including, but not limited to the military.
- Tom Helmantoler, San Diego, CA
I have 14-year-old and 10-year-old sons. I struggle with whether I would want them to serve. Part of me thinks, "No, if they don't have to, let someone else do it." Another part of me thinks, "All young people should serve. We should all have skin in the game."
- Alison French-Tubo, wife of a Marine Corps veteran, Sacramento, CA
The challenge: we’re mostly hearing from one side of the divide
We asked for both sides of the civilian-military divide to weigh in, but so far, military members, reservists, veterans and their families make up the vast majority of responses. Not many civilians (who don’t have a child, spouse or parent in the armed forces) have chosen to share their thoughts for the survey. That could reflect shortcomings in the way we asked questions. It could also be a symptom of a growing disconnection from military concerns by the wider American population. Civilian “tune-out” is a problem cited by journalists, researchers and veterans covering the country’s military commitments abroad, including the war in Afghanistan.
President Trump’s Chief of Staff, John Kelly, highlighted a lack of understanding between servicemembers and civilians last year, while addressing media questions about the President’s conversation with the wife of a fallen Special Forces soldier in Niger.
"We don't look down upon those of you that haven't served," Kelly, a retired four-star Marine Corps General, said. "In fact, in a way we're a little bit sorry because you'll never have experienced the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kinds of things our servicemen and -women do."