Here we are at another Memorial Day. Pretty much everywhere you will see celebrations of gratitude. Churches will ask veterans to stand for a moment during the service. Parades will be packed with vehicles and veterans of previous conflicts.
I always think of the people who never made it home. Some of them were volunteers. Many were draftees fulfilling their obligation. A few were running from trouble. What they all had in common is that they all thought they would return home. These were young men and women who for the most part imagined their deployment would be a brief interlude in what would surely be a long life. Some believed in the cause of the time, while others just believed in service to the nation, or to go along with their friends and get their obligation over safely. We can all identify with them in some respect. They are all gone. They will not return home alive. Some will not return home at all.
Then I think of current events. I think of all the people deployed to our two fronts. I think about it too long, and I get irritated.
Our nation is good at many things. One of those things is apathy. It is an apathy about the services and their hardships. People are even tired of hearing about the hardships. After all, we are talking about volunteers. “We didn’t make them join the service.” That is true. But we elect our government, and that government influences what happens to our military. And frankly, those we elect don’t get it most of the time. They never served or deployed.
Life in the service is a voluntary life of sacrifice. Even in the best non-conflict circumstances, it can be a difficult life for the service member and the family. You experience dangerous training deployments, high stress situations, and personal strife from long deployments. I know everyone experiences stress in their lives. I am just saying the average service member’s fun meter is usually pegged a little bit more than a civilian.
When you send a person into a shooting war, and they spend some time there, they change. Most of the time, they change a great deal. Don’t take my word for it, do some research. I was never in a shooting war, but I have been around more than a few folks who have. Men and women. They change.
Our manpower numbers are so thin that we are putting our military through an out of control machine of deployments. The same people deploy over and over. You go for months deployed, then a year or so home, then back, then home, and on and on. Change upon change upon change. Over time we have accrued all these professional warriors who like being deployed more than being home. But then we sweep them out like so much dust and dirt. They get therapy in bucket loads, but they are out. Their identity is gone. Sorry, we need the money.
We reduce costs by reducing manpower. It is the quickest way a corporation can raise cash in house. Our Military is no different. “The missions have changed” or “our strategic threats have changed” etc. Sure they have. But while we reduce manpower, we continue to buy unnecessary vehicles, systems, doctrine, and support. I will cite the V-22 Osprey as one example. What madman dreamed that aircraft up? “We need speed, more lift, etc, due to our threats”. Is it cheaper than two helicopters? One Osprey’s fly away cost is 67 million dollars today. The workhorse in Afghanistan is still the Chinook. Fly away cost 37 Million. The Chinook seats more troops, can lift 50,000 lbs which is only 10K less than the Osprey, and is definitely slower. As for the speed issue, the latest Sikorsky experimental helicopter is in the 400 mph range, comparable to the Osprey. My point in droning about all this is we are paying twice as much for more complexity, an unproven over time design, and less troop capacity. Ouch.
Which leads me to the point of all this. Our military is stretched too thin. In 2009, the Army had 548,000 active duty. With a mission to bring in over 80,000 new soldiers per year, the force is 1/7 untrained and unprepared to fight. Since a percentage is always leaving, meaning they don’t fight all the way up until the day they muster out, there is another hefty number not able to fight. Ouch. And since not everyone in the Army is a shooter, but may be a supporter at home in an office, this cuts the availability of a fighting force even more.
Is the answer more brigades? This is the structure the Army is adopting, the modular brigade concept. Brigades cost big money by any estimate. The GAO estimates 3 to 4 brigades and 3 headquarters of approximately 20,000 soldiers (brigades and headquarters combined) would cost about 2 billion annually. There is no free lunch, unfortunately. The Osprey’s cost is at 27 BILLION as of 2008. Think about that. That’s more than a few brigades.
A soldier can be trained to do many many things. They are cheaper, more flexible, and the rate of return is greater for your money. The more you have, the easier it is to do things. A soldier can run, climb, swim, think, and sacrifice. It’s all about boots, especially in today’s up close and personal combat situations. That is the one lesson we haven’t learned from previous conflicts.
So when you see all the nice and impressive vehicles and aircraft at the parade, look close. You will see a soldier somewhere. He or she will look tired, and bored. They have changed permanently, and they are waiting to go back. Because they know it’s coming, and there’s no one else to go.