Today I celebrated the Rite of Committal for a US Marine Corp veteran. Given our proximity to the Quantico National Cemetery, we are called upon several times a week to assist families with the committal of their loved ones – most often retired service members or their spouses. Sadly, we also serve when an active duty member is interned. They are mostly connected to the Marine Corp, but the hallowed grounds honor members from all branches of the military.
For people of my generation, World War II seemed like recent history. I mean, our fathers fought in the war! I was thinking about my father and his brothers who all served in WWII. That war ended 76 years ago!
Frank Buckles was the last of the WWI vets to pass away. He died in February 2011 at the age of 110 years. It is estimated there are approximately 400,000 WWII veterans still with us, the youngest of whom are in their mid-to-late 80s. About 400 of these men and women pass away each day. Since then women and men have served their country in Korea, Vietnam, regional conflicts, the Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The Pew Research Institute estimates there are 20 million American, still living, who have served and are rightly called veterans. That represents about 7-8% of all adult Americans. And there is a wide variance by age cohort.
Approximately 47% of American men over the age of 75 are veterans. Of the male adults aged 18-34, only 3.5% are veterans. In my age bracket (64-74), 33% are veterans. My intent was not to exclude women, it was just that the age-bracket data is harder to find and only “recently” has a broader range of opportunities within the military become available to women.
What is the profile of our veterans? And how will it change? Within 25 years all the veterans of WWII and Korea will have passed away as the Gulf Wars veterans become the majority. An increasing percentage of our service men and women will be people of color and women will play a larger role in the armed services.
And what about the people who will make decisions to send our men and women into harm’s way? How many of our Senators and Representatives have served? The graph speaks volumes. When was the last time we had a combat veteran in the Oval Office? George H.W. Bush was the last serving combat veteran president. He served in WWII as a Naval Aviator receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross. President Bush left office in early 1993. That was 28 years ago.
Intuitively, I wonder whether the lack of military service is a contributor to the discord now seen in the Halls of Congress. There are other forms of service which also build the character imbued in former service people – that data is not readily available. But as I said, is only an intuitive thought. I think about that when I read the newspapers about the unimaginable efforts (to my mind) to limit voting, the most basic right and duty of every citizen. Women and men have served and died to protect that right. To see the commitment, you just have to drive thru Quantico, Arlington, or any of the other 153 National Cemeteries. And that number doesn’t include the State Cemeteries for veterans.
I have celebrated the Rite several times this week alone. I am always grateful for those who served. I am reminded of that in viewing the row upon row of the headstones standing as silent sentinels. We are a privileged people. And with that privilege comes are great responsibility to protect what others have preserved for us and the generations to come.