Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Military-Opportunity Complex

This post originally appeared on www.progressivefix.com on 13 October, 2010

This post is the fifth in a series about the Progressive Military

I knew my entire life that I was going to join the military at 18. There was never a time where I can recall I thought anything else. It wasn’t pushed on me; it was just something I always understood. My father and several of my uncles are Vietnam vets, my cousin is a Gulf War vet, and my grandfather and his brothers were in World War II. Iraq is my own particular war. In my family, we serve in the military. Many other American families share the same story.

I was always good academically and very active in school activities. As my high school graduation approached people would ask me or my parents where I was going to college and what I was going to do. Doctor? Lawyer? Architect? The answer was no, he’s shipping off to be a Private in the U.S. Army. The looks were telling. Someone even offered ‘there’s other ways to pay for college, you know.’

For many there are not. I served with guys in the Army who will tell you that if they hadn’t joined they would be in the poorhouse, in jail, or dead in some alleyway. My father was a tough Chicago kid who volunteered at the height of the Vietnam War because he wanted better than sketchy factory jobs. He got it. After ‘Nam, he used the GI Bill to get a degree and a job. He just retired after thirty years of looking out for abused kids with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. The opportunity the military gives has paid dividends not only for my father, but for me and my family, not to mention the thousands of kids my dad helped over the years.

Thirty years after him and at exactly the same place, Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, I started my military career. I could look out of my barracks window and see across the drill square the same building he had lived in. They shaved my head, gave me a uniform, and a job with a steady paycheck, medical and dental care, a retirement system, and other benefits. I grew up in rural southern Illinois, where the unemployment rate today ranges between 9 and14 percent. A lot of people I grew up with haven’t fared as well, even some of those that went to college.

I had to work hard for it, but I did it, me and over 26 million other American veterans, many of whom might not have otherwise had such opportunities. Today, communities around military posts are more prosperous than industrial cities, tech centers, and college towns. The opportunities granted by military service help Americans of all kinds; studies have found military communities are among the least segregated in the country.

The military not only put money in our pockets, but it has given us work experience we couldn’t get elsewhere. Only around 15 percent of our troops are actually ‘trigger-pullers’; over half work in technical and medical fields and another third work in administration and logistics. These military jobs more often than not have a direct equivalent in the civilian market. It’s no secret that military life creates disciplined, principled, and dedicated workers, an asset to any employer or a good basis for starting a business.

Almost a quarter of Americans have a college degree today and the increasing demand for and availability of degrees to the larger population owes much to the GI Bill. Since 1944, it has helped over 21 million veterans join the educated workforce. The Post 9-11 GI Bill will help hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans not only get an education, but help pay their cost of living while doing so, something the GI Bill hasn’t done since the 1980’s. It has been touted as part of the economic recovery program by providing the opportunity for many former troops to qualify for better jobs than the currently scarce entry level positions available to those that have only a high school diploma. This is especially important while unemployment among young veterans is estimated at 21 percent. If you can’t find a job, at least you can go to school.

I didn’t join the military just to go to college or for the opportunities. There are many that did and there’s nothing wrong with that. They have earned the thanks of the nation. The GI Bill is a progressive policy that does just that for Americans that might not otherwise have had the opportunity. Serving in the military gives many Americans the chance they need for a career or a good start in life. As for me, I have decided to study law in the end. Without the opportunity the military has given to me and to my family, I would not have been able to. Millions of other Americans share the same story.