Parents – don’t let your babies grow up to be soldiers

by Lori Gallagher Witt

Yesterday at 3:13 PM

“I’ve debated for a long time about posting this, and after some of the things I’ve read this past week, it’s time.

To be clear, I have nothing but respect for people who serve. Whether your reason for joining the military is to serve your country, to gain access to the GI bill, to escape a bad situation, or any other reason — respect. I’m also only speaking out the US military, as I don’t know enough about other countries’ forces to comment one way or the other.

People sometimes come to me and ask for advice for themselves or for their high school-age child who is considering military service. Which branch should they choose? Should they enlist or become an officer? Do a four-year stint or go for a 20-year career?

And it’s hard to have those conversations because the answer I want to give is “Don’t do it.”

The suicide rate in the military is on the rise, and the powers that be keep wringing their hands and wondering why. Anyone who’s paying attention can clearly see why.

Toxic command climates. Multiple year-long combat tours. Financial stress (food stamps are not uncommon in military families). Separation from loved ones for months or years at a stretch (either to remote duty stations or on deployment). Long periods of severe sleep deprivation. Untreated addiction, mental illness, and PTSD. Untreated or maltreated injuries or illnesses. Sexual assault is taken even less seriously than it is in the civilian world. Domestic violence is rampant.

The military has resources available for all of these things, and channels that service members can use to report problems. On paper, the support network is strong and present.

On paper.

In practice, it’s a very, very different story.

The simple act of asking for help for depression, anxiety, burnout, PTSD, suicidal thoughts, sexual assault, harassment, etc, can literally end a person’s career. At best, it can seriously derail it, diverting even the most promising upward trajectory. At worst, it can lead to a person being deemed unable to do their job, being stripped of security clearances, railroaded into dead-end rates, etc.

People are unofficially and indirectly punished for whistleblowing. Report sexual assault or harassment? Well, they’ll need to separate you from the other person… which means you’re probably going to wind up behind a desk in a promotion blind spot, and whether anything happens to the perpetrator or not (spoiler: it probably won’t), you’re not getting promoted. If you don’t get promoted, you don’t get to reenlist. Snitches get stitches.

If you’re a dependent of an abusive service member, it’s even more complicated and intimidating to get help than it is in the civilian world. You’re told — sometimes directly, sometimes not — that reporting this can end your spouse’s career, so you’d better be *real* sure you want to open that Pandora’s box. After all, if you end their career, then you have financial stress *and* your spouse has yet *another* reason to be angry with you. Couple that with the difficulty spouses have holding down careers with multiple moves, and you have abused spouses with no means of supporting themselves if they leave.

Got a knee that hasn’t been the same since that training exercise last year? You can go to Medical and get some Motrin, but if you can’t PT, it’s going to hinder your ability to get promoted. Physical readiness is a job requirement, and the doctor says it’s fine, so just keep knuckling through. Then when you fail a couple of physical readiness tests and finally get booted out, you can go see a civilian doctor and find out how badly you actually injured your knee and how much damage you’ve done by continuing to stand and run on it. The VA might take care of you, but don’t hold your breath. After all, the military doesn’t maintain equipment it’s no longer using. Once you’re off active duty, you’re no longer a priority. Not that you or your health are much of a priority on active duty — all that matters is your physical readiness.

It’s not just *your* health that’s compromised either. If you’re in a rate where overseas duty stations are necessary to move up the ranks, your family needs to be — at least on paper — in tiptop health. You can lose overseas orders if one of your dependents has a medical condition — even something like depression or if they’re in need of dental work. Alternatively, you can go unaccompanied and live apart from your dependents for the duration of your orders, which is spectacular for morale and families.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Except no one expects military life to be easy. After all, those are the sacrifices people make to serve their country and defend our freedom, right?

Let’s be real: No one has fought for the safety and freedom of Americans since World War II. Vietnam, Gulf War I, Afghanistan, Iraq — those were over politics and oil. Now we’re sending troops to defend oil in Saudi Arabia.

We’re not allowed to say all that out loud because we’re supposed to support our troops. And I do support our troops. I’m married to a service member, for God’s sake. It’s because of that support that I AM saying this out loud:

Our service members are fighting for politics and oil.

Not freedom. Not America. Not democracy.

Politics. Oil. Other people’s promotions.

Service members deserve support, and they deserve better than the top-down failures from leadership that has been rampant in the military for decades.

It’s considered noble to serve because by enlisting, you’re handing the United States a blank check to be cashed in the amount of up to and including your health, your sanity, or your life.

We’re just not supposed to pay attention to what’s in the memo line on that check:

Politics. Oil. Other people’s promotions.

And in the end, when you’ve served your time, and you’ve either reached the end of your contract or the end of your usefulness — whichever comes first — then you’ll be expected to transition to a normal life as a productive citizen who hasn’t seen and done things few can imagine in exchange for a handful of benefits. No one wants to hear about the horrors you’ve lived and the nightmares you have even when you’re awake. They want you to be a dignified veteran so they can thank you for your service.

So if you come to me and ask for advice regarding you or your child joining the military, I’m going to be honest. I’m going to say the only thing I can, in good conscience, say after watching service members get chewed up and spit out one after the other:

Parents, don’t let your babies grow up to be soldiers.

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