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Jim Garamone, Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs
WASHINGTON - 09.30.2010 The American people are losing contact with those who make up its military, and the nation needs to understand the service and sacrifices that U.S. military personnel and their families make, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said at Duke University's Page Auditorium, Sept. 30. The secretary spoke to the audience about the achievements of the all-volunteer military force and the stresses and strains it faces. Since 1993, Gates has worked with young people, first as the president of Texas A&M University and now as the Defense Department's top civilian leader.
"Some of my warmest memories of Texas A&M are of walking around the 48,000-student campus and talking to students – most of them between 18 and 24 years old – seeing them out on their bikes, walking, even occasionally studying or going to class," Gates said. "For nearly four years now, I've been in a job that also makes me responsible for the well-being of an even larger number of young people in the same 18- to 24-year-old age group.
"But instead of wearing J-Crew, they wear body armor," he continued. "Instead of carrying book bags they carry assault rifles. And a number of them – far too many – will not come home to their parents."
Gates said the young men and women in today's military had joined up while the country was at war.
And the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns "represent the first protracted, large-scale conflicts since our Revolutionary War fought entirely by volunteers," he added.
Unlike the draftee armies and navies of the past, a very small percentage of Americans are defending the United States today, Gates said. There are, he said, roughly 2.4 million active duty, Guard and reserve soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines defending a country with more than 300 million people. Put another way, he added, less that 1 percent of the population has shouldered the national security burden.
"This tiny sliver of America has achieved extraordinary things under the most trying of circumstances," Gates said of the members of today's U.S. military. "It is the most-professional, the best-educated, the most-capable force this country has ever sent into battle."
But this professionalism, he said, comes at a cost – not just for the service members, and their families – but also in changes to "the relationship between those in uniform and the wider society they have sworn to protect."
The United States traditionally fielded small military forces that expanded in times of need, Gates said. In the 1930s, he said, the U.S. Army ranked 17th in the world in size – just behind Romania. In 1945, he added, more than 10 million Americans were on active Army duty. During the Cold War years, he said, the United States needed to maintain a large military and resorted to a peacetime draft to fill the ranks.
Americans, from all social and economic classes, were called on to serve during the draft years, Gates said.
But this changed, he said, near the end of the Vietnam War. In 1973, the draft ended and the all-volunteer force began.
"Over the past four decades, after a difficult transition period during the 1970s, the all-volunteer experiment has proven to be a remarkable success," Gates said. "The doubts – and there were many inside and outside the military – were largely overcome."
And today, the all-volunteer force is key to achieving progress in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates said.
"Whatever the shortcomings there may have been in Iraq and Afghanistan stem from failures and miscalculations at the top, not those doing the fighting and leading on the ground," the secretary said. "It has taken every ounce of our troops' skill, initiative and commitment to battle a cunning and adaptive enemy at the front, while overcoming bureaucratic lassitude and sometimes worse at the rear."
Gates said the amount of experience possessed by today's servicemembers puts them on another level. For example, he said, one study completed in 1969 said less than 20 percent of enlisted Army soldiers had more than four years of service. Today, more than 50 percent of today's enlisted soldiers have served four years, Gates said.
"Going back to compulsory service, in addition to being politically impossible, is highly impractical given the kinds of technical skills, experience and attributes needed to be successful on the battlefield in the 21st century," he said. "For that reason, reinstituting the draft is overwhelmingly opposed by the military's leadership."
However, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates said, have placed tremendous strain on U.S. forces and their families.
"The all-volunteer force conceived in the 1970s was designed to train, prepare, and deploy for a major and quick conventional conflict, either against the Soviet Union on the plains of Central Europe or a contingency such as the first Gulf War against Iraq in 1991," Gates said.
"By contrast, the recent post-9/11 campaigns have required prolonged, persistent combat and support from across the military," he continued. "Since the invasion of Iraq, more than a million soldiers and Marines have been deployed into the fight. The Navy has put nearly 100,000 sailors on the ground while maintaining its sea commitments around the globe. And the Air Force, by one count, has been at war since 1991, when it first began enforcing the no-fly zone over Iraq."
Today, all services are making their recruiting quotas, Gates said, noting that "in some cases the highest propensity to reenlist is found in units that are in the fight."
Servicemembers' camaraderie and commitment is real," the secretary said. "But so is the strain – on troops, and especially on their families." The consequences of strain caused by multiple deployments, he said, include more anxiety and disruption inflicted on children, increased domestic strife and a corresponding rising divorce rate and, most tragically, a growing number of suicides.
Junior and mid-level officers and sergeants in ground combat and support specialties are exposed to these strains the most, Gates said.
"These young men and women have seen the complex, grueling, maddening face of asymmetric warfare in the 21st century up close," the secretary said. "They've lost friends in combat. Some are struggling psychologically with what they've seen and heard and felt on the battlefield. And yet, they keep coming back."
Today's young commissioned and non-commissioned officers are the most battle-tested, innovative and impressive group of military leaders this country has produced in a long time, the secretary said.
"These are the people we need to retain and lead the armed forces in the future," he said.
But service members also need to have a normal life when they're away from the battlefield, Gates said.
"No matter how patriotic, how devoted they are," he said, "at some point they will want to have the semblance of a normal life – getting married, starting a family, going to college or graduate school, seeing their children grow up – all of which they have justly earned."
Increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps, the drawdown in Iraq, and other initiatives will increase the amount of time servicemembers spend between deployments, Gates said. "But in reality, the demands on a good part of our military will continue for years to come," he said. "And it begs the question: How long can these brave and broad young shoulders carry the burden that we as a military, as a government, as a society, continue to place on them?"
Most Americans honor and respect those who have chosen to serve, but for most citizens, the war is an abstraction, the secretary said. "[It is] a distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally," Gates said. "Even [after] 9/11, in the absence of a draft, for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do."
Since the mass armies of the 1940s to 1970s, Gates said, fewer and fewer Americans know someone with military experience in their family or social circle.
"In broad demographic terms, the armed forces continue to be largely representative of the country as a whole, drawing predominantly from America's working and middle classes," the secretary said.
The nearly four decades of an all-volunteer force has reinforced a series of demographic, cultural, and institutional shifts, Gates said, affecting who is most likely to serve in the military and from where. "Studies have shown that one of the biggest factors in propensity to join the military is growing up near those who have [served] or are serving," he said.
"In this country, that propensity to serve is most pronounced in the South and the Mountain West, and in rural areas and small towns nationwide – a propensity that well exceeds these communities' proportion of the population as a whole," he said. "Currently, the percentage of the force from the Northeast, the West Coast and major cities continues to decline."
This trend, Gates said, also affects the recruiting and educating of new officers.
"The state of Alabama, with a population of less than 5 million, has 10 Army ROTC host programs," the secretary said. "The Los Angeles metro area, population over 12 million, has four host ROTC programs. And the Chicago metro area, population 9 million, has three."
There is a risk, over time, of developing a cadre of military leaders that -- politically, culturally and geographically -- have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend, he said.
Gates said students attending the nation's elite colleges need to step forward and volunteer for military service.
"Over the past generation many commentators have lamented the absence of ROTC from the Ivy League and other selective universities," he said, noting that "institutions that used to send hundreds of graduates into the armed forces now struggle to commission a handful of officers every year."
Gates said university faculty and administrators banned ROTC from many elite campuses during the Vietnam War and some continue to bar the military because of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law. The secretary praised Duke University, based at Durham, N.C., for "being a notable and admirable exception, with your three [ROTC] host programs."
"I am encouraged that several other comparable universities ... are at least re-considering their position on military recruiting and officer training," Gates added.
Yet, the presence of on-campus ROTC programs won't do any good without volunteers, the secretary said. ROTC training and follow on military experience, he said, gives young officers "extraordinary responsibility at a young age -– not just for the lives of your troops, but for missions and decisions that may change the course of history."
"In addition to being in the fight," he continued, "our young military leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan have, to one degree or another, found themselves dealing with development, governance, agriculture, health, diplomacy. They've done all this at an age when many of their peers are reading spreadsheets and making photocopies."