A Call to Better Understand the Military Experience
By Bill Johnson / May 1, 2015

Imagine that you're on a troop landing ship bobbing in the waves off the coast of Normandy, France. The front drops open. You jump into chest-deep bloody water and make your way toward an expansive of beach and into withering gunfire from cliffs ahead. There's nowhere to duck for cover except behind the body of a fallen soldier in front of you.

Imagine that you watch your brothers-in-arms freeze to death on the frozen ground of Korea. Imagine that you're walking down a jungle trail in Vietnam knowing that when you brush back a tree branch a booby trap explosive may blow up in your face. Imagine that you're on patrol on a dusty street in Baghdad and know that at any moment an unseen bomb buried by the roadside may explode and cover you with shrapnel.

These are the last images of many military troops who took their last breaths in those awful places - the fallen heroes we will honor on Memorial Day, May 25. They are also the vivid images - the stuff of lifelong dreams - that came home with those who survived and are with us still. As we pause on Memorial Day to memorialize the dead, it's worth paying tribute to the living as well.
Memorial Day

Unfortunately, America is losing its memory of these military experiences. Throughout Word War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam, many families had a direct connection to the fighting and sacrifice. The military draft was one important cause of that. But post-Vietnam and the elimination of the draft, a very small percent of American families have a direct connection to the fighting. It's often reported that with the all-volunteer military only one percent of American families have skin in the game. For the rest of us it may be out of sight, out of mind.

It's far too easy to mouth the words "thank you for your service" to a man or woman in uniform at the airport and then go about our business. If a relative few carry the military burden for all of us, the least we can do is try to understand what they go through - what we are asking them to do on our behalf. Toward that end, each of us would do well to read three books. Collectively, they provide a sense of daily life for those who served in recent deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In The Good Soldiers, David Finkel follows an army unit from stateside training through its tour of duty in Iraq and visits with those suffering crippling injuries at the end of the deployment. You'll learn that a new soldier going on his first patrol in an armored vehicle is taught to sit with one foot in front of the other - never side-by-side - so that if an explosive device rips through the vehicle, he may lose only one leg below the knee rather than both -- an unsettling introduction to new duty.

In War, Sebastian Junger details daily life at a small outpost in a remote mountain valley in Afghanistan where most soldiers killed never saw their assassin - a sniper hidden across the valley. They welcomed a firefight to break the boredom and put the enemy in sight.

The Forever War is a brilliantly written book about troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Dexter Filkins lived in the region for years and writes of the culture and religions with insight. He has detailed accounts of what our troops did and saw, including chilling Taliban brutality.

The information here helps anyone better understand the experience of our modern day troops, so that when we pay tribute to our many decades of war dead, we can better appreciate those who carry the burden of our military affairs today.

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