The past couple of weeks have not seen good press for the US military. Ironically, right after a massive report on sexual abuse within the force was released, brass announced a wave of investigations and arrests of leaders and service members whose job it was to fight these very problems.
The revelations of sexual assault and harassment are only the latest in what has been a steady stream of bad news for the military. After a decade of war, we’ve read over and over about PTSD and mental health stigma, suicide, unemployment and extremism within the ranks. Without question, as a military, we have issues that we need to address.
But the things that I read about on a daily basis – all of these problems – while present and important, do not reflect the reality of what I see and experience as a soldier. In other words, this is not my army.
Yes, we’re growing and learning as an organization. We’ve been at war for over a decade, and are adapting to a rapidly changing world. America’s expectations of who we are and who we should be are also changing, and with that, problems are bubbling up to the surface that have been long ignored – and we are addressing them. But this fractured force that I read about full of misfits and miscreants is not my army.
The army I serve in is composed of brave men and women who joined the force during a time of war, fully knowing they will likely be placed in harm’s way. They’ve seen the veterans coming home with missing limbs and those who struggle to transition back to civilian life – and they still choose to sign the line. These are men and women who are unafraid to be patriotic at a time when doing so often seems out of fashion, and even looked down upon. They live the Army Values, and are just as shocked to learn about the scale of the problems we’re facing as a force – and as a nation – as the rest of America. And we want to get better. This is not a group of broken and sorry soldiers, fumbling along and victimized.
The army I serve in shows up every day and works, focusing on daily drills with a watchful eye on global hotspots, listening to the talking heads nonchalantly discuss “boots on the ground”, waiting for the call to be whisked away again to some far off place. Talk of an “Asia Pivot” or a return to a “garrison army” falls on deaf ears to the family saying tearful goodbyes to their loved one at an airfield, or to the soldier heading to Helmand province for a year. This is not to make light of the difficult problems we must face and fix, but it’s important to recognize that we here on the ground see the work being done to fix them.
Even with these problems, the men and women who serve in our armed forces represent the absolute best our country has to offer. They are our greatest resource – the less than 1% who choose to do a difficult and often thankless job. They sign up having no real idea what they are committing to – a complete investment of mind, body and soul that they can’t possibly understand until years later, after the careful reflection of hard-earned wisdom. The things that carry them forward are only an inkling of the pull of duty, a nagging yearning to do more and deliver a precious gift that too few give to their country.
I’m writing this because I don’t think that we are getting a fair evaluation. Or rather, that the heavily slanted negativity simply does not reflect what it’s like to serve. It’s an honor and a privilege to be daily surrounded by the most amazing Americans I have ever known, every single day.
I don’t show up to work in the morning and dig myself out of mental health issues, thoughts of suicide, fears of unemployment or anxiety over sexual assault, or whatever else becomes the issue of the day. We cannot do enough to help the service members whose days are clouded by these issues, but they are not the colors of my experience or of many others. Rather, these problems represent another piece of the giant puzzle of military life, just as they do in American life writ large.
America expects us to be the best, and at the risk of sounding pompous, we’re pretty damn good. We will fix our problems because because that’s simply what we do. We learn, we improve, and we take care of our own. We won’t ignore our issues, and though the change will probably hurt a little, that’s just fine – we know the rewards of working hard at self-improvement.
Through it all, I know that I serve with special men and women who make this country great and will do so long after they take off the uniform.
Tillman Military Scholar Don Gomez is a graduate of the City College of New York and an officer in the United States Army. Twitter: @dongomezjr