#NatSec #DefensePolicy #ForeignAffairs #VeteransIssues #CurrentEvents #CommonSense- A Millennial Perspective
The recent passing of U.S. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg is yet another reminder of the sacrifices and successes experienced by the veterans of World War II and how so few of those veterans are left today to tell their story. Senator Lautenberg was the last of 115 senators who served in uniform during World War II. Known today as “The Greatest Generation,” the veterans of WWII left the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific and returned to their communities to pursue their dreams. They went to school with the GI Bill, started families with their loved ones and created businesses with comrades; a select few even became Presidents. Many wonder if the new generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will be able to fill the void and become the “Next Greatest Generation.”
Countless veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan identify with their WWII predecessors, who at a similar age faced a dangerous and economically uncertain world. Tom Brokaw, author of the bestseller, The Greatest Generation, repeatedly draws similarities between the veterans coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and those World War II vets whom his phenomenal book so accurately portrays. In a September 2011 interview with Stephen Colbert, Brokaw recounted a comment made to General David Petraeus, saying: “This could be the ‘next greatest generation.’ … I think the people who have been serving in military uniform, who volunteered, raised their hands … have that potential for greatness. They have come back, gone to school, are in jobs, running for state legislature, Congress and the Senate.”
In his book, Brokaw writes: “World War II was fought on 6 continents and killed over 50 million people. The men and women who fought in this war experienced death, despair, separation and most certainly heroism. They lived through the Great Depression only to enter in to the largest military conflict the world has ever known.” Though not nearly as catastrophic, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have experienced their share of death, despair, separation and heroism serving in America’s longest war and living through the 2008 economic collapse, increasingly referred to as the Great Recession.
Twelve years after the attacks of 9/11, there are approximately 2.4 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these veterans represent the next American generation known simply as “Millennials.” “Millennial Veterans” who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have served multiple deployments in support of America’s global war on terror and are coming home to an uncertain economy as a result of the Great Recession. No doubt, many millennials will find their calling in uniform and will climb the ranks to become exceptional leaders of the armed services. Others will leave the military once they have satisfied their service requirements. Regardless of which path the veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan choose, this small group of Americans (less than 1% of the American population) are on a path to leadership both in and out of uniform.
World War II was a massive campaign involving enormous battalions, air wings and battle groups armed against one another in all out mechanized warfare. In America’s longest war – the War on Terror, fought mostly in the towns and villages of Afghanistan and Iraq, Millennial Veterans have experienced less mechanized battle and more counterinsurgency. The War on Terror, has proven to be more a political campaign dependent upon leaders who have outstanding diplomatic gifts, a cooperative leadership style and an ability to be extremely flexible and adaptive. This coupled with the technology that has defined the millennial generation, (smart phones, Facebook, twitter etc.) is producing a generation of veterans who are used to working collaboratively and are comfortable operating without the strict command and control hierarchy established by their WWII brethren.
Millennial Veterans who fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had to operate under extreme uncertainty and with limited resources. Junior officers and NCO’s placed in charge of entire villages have displayed unparalleled equanimity while acting as “mini-mayors” in their roles as peacekeepers, security forces, nation builders and financiers; all while maintaining the safety and security of the troops assigned beneath them. As the wars wind down and veterans continue to leave the services, future civilian employers can expect Millennial Veterans to understand and respect levels of management and the chain-of-command. Additionally, they are most likely to succeed in an environment with numerous opportunities for growth, a workplace where all employees are appreciated regardless of rank or title and all employees’ voices are heard and respected. They are accustomed to leading and making decisions under immense pressure and they welcome responsibility.
Many veterans who have now left the armed services and entered into the civilian workforce are already having a positive influence at their place of work and within their communities. Several have gone back to school using the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, some are coming home and working for large corporations, small businesses or non-profits and some veteran entrepreneurs have created their own companies. A few exceptional organizations already created or currently led by Millennial Veterans include: Team Rubicon, Flying Scarfs, Carolina for Kibera, Hire Heroes, IAVA, The Truman National Security Project, Purple Heart Homes and The Mission Continues.
A small number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have continued their service in elected office. In his book, Chasing Ghosts, Iraq War veteran Paul Rieckhoff writes, “Veterans have been trained and hardened in the most extreme conditions, and possess a unique set of skills that make them exceptional political candidates. Veterans will not shy away from difficult decisions. They have seen firsthand the need for strong leadership in difficult times. They have demonstrated the courage to take the difficult path.” Some 16 members of the 113th Congress served in either Afghanistan or Iraq, according to data from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Granted, their numbers are few when compared to the WWII veterans who ended up serving in Congress. However, Rep. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) believes this is just the beginning of a wave of service members from Afghanistan and Iraq likely to pursue congressional office in coming years. These veterans “are still entering the sweet spot of their professional life,” says Mr. Cotton.
Herbert Hoover once said, “Older men declare war. But it is youth that must fight and die. And it is youth who must inherit the tribulation, the sorrow, and the triumphs that are the aftermath of war.” Millennial Veterans have fought in America’s longest war and survived the Great Recession. They are an optimistic but realistic group, who recognize the great challenges they will inherit from their fathers’ and grandfather’s decisions. Their future challenges include an overwhelming national debt, a growing gap between rich and poor, competition from a rising superpower, unrest in the Middle East, the threat of global terrorism, and a failing education system. As Millennial Veterans enter leadership roles within their communities, they will pave the way for a new generation of American veterans who have been to war and come home to a nation in need of serious leadership and problem solving. Fortunately, we are already witnessing great contributions to society from Millennial Veterans, even though their numbers are far fewer than those veterans who came to be known as The Greatest Generation.
Among The Greatest Generation, 9% of Americans served in uniform during World War II. This includes seven U.S. Presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy to George H.W. Bush. Today, less than 1% of Americans have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the civilian-military gap continues to grow as fewer Americans serve in uniform. Samuel Adams once said, “it does not take a majority to prevail… but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.” As the Post 9/11 wars come to a close and millennials grow older, it will become imperative for the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to recall Samuel Adams’ words. For Millennial Veterans, there seems to be only one option, and that is to become the next greatest generation or better yet – The Greatest Generation 2.0.
Jonathan Hudgins is a Captain and F-15E pilot in the United States Air Force. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force or Department of Defense.