U.S. Army general Martin E. Dempsey pins the Purple Heart on a soldier during his visit to Afghanistan on Dec. 16, 2012.(D. Myles Cullen)
America’s highest-ranking military officer, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, salutes post-9/11 veterans and what makes them unique.
Throughout American history, the image of our troops has been largely shaped by the society they rejoin after service. When our citizens have supported the war, they have embraced our troops. I saw this firsthand growing up in Bayonne, N.J., in the 1950s, with the homecomings of World War II veterans whom we call “the greatest generation.” When the American public hasn’t been in favor of the war, however, our troops waged another battle once home.
We’ve become more sophisticated in our understanding of war. We’ve learned to distinguish the warrior from the war. Over the past 12 years, we’ve seen unprecedented public support for our military men and women, those we often call the 9/11 generation. People respect our troops’ service and appreciate their sacrifice, even if they don’t necessarily support the wars. It’s imperative that we sustain this respect for those who serve in our military. We should commit to making sure that the emerging image of this generation’s veteran is the one we want as American citizens. From my perspective, this is what sets the 9/11 generation apart:
✪ They volunteered. America’s post-9/11 wars are unique. So, too, are their veterans. Never before has our nation been engaged in conflict for so long with so small a share of its population carrying the fight. More than 3 million men and women have signed up since 9/11. They freely left the comforts of their homes and neighborhoods to serve a cause greater than themselves, fully aware of the risks of their choices.
✪ They’re adaptable. The nature of our military conflicts over the past 12 years has required a special adaptability among our men and women. They have had to stay ahead of uncertainty on the battlefield and an adaptive enemy. They have also had to manage relationships with our allies while learning the complexities of the people and the lands in which they fight.
✪ They have uncommon courage. As just one example, I had the chance to meet Master Sgt. Roger Sparks, a member of the Alaska Air National Guard. In 2010, Sparks and his team rescued a dozen soldiers off the side of a mountain in the Hindu Kush area of Afghanistan. Under heavy enemy fire, he lowered himself by cable from a helicopter 12 times. Twice, the cable was hit by gunfire. Eight soldiers survived and four died in his arms. I asked him, “What were you thinking of when you lowered yourself time after time?” He told me, “Truthfully, I didn’t have time to think. I just knew they really needed me.”
✪ They are resilient. Last year, I had the great honor to head the U.S. delegation to the London Paralympics. Navy Lt. Brad Snyder was one of the athletes competing for Team USA. Snyder was in Afghanistan the summer before, helping two wounded Afghan soldiers, when a bomb exploded. That bomb took Snyder’s sight, but not his passion for making a difference. He says, “I can still go out and represent the country, just in a new way.” Snyder captured two gold medals and a silver for Team USA Swimming on the one-year anniversary of that blast.
✪ They are us. The 9/11 veterans come from small towns and big cities in every corner of the U.S. They weren’t born in uniform. They were simply Americans. As George Washington noted of a different era’s veterans, “When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.” In fact, most would tell you that when they leave the military, they’re better citizens than when they arrived.
When you add these things together, each veteran, in his or her own way, has served heroically. All want to continue to serve the nation as they return home and transition back into civilian communities. As a nation, we ought to make it a priority to help them channel their experience, ethos, and desire for personal challenge into continuing to make a difference. Their strengths are our strengths, the steel of America’s national character. And in the end, their image will be our image, the image of what it means to be an American.