Monday, May 30, 2011

Letter to a WWII veteran

According to the VA's VetPop2007 forecast, which was based on Census data, there may be around 1.6 million veterans of the World War II era alive today, or about 10 percent of the original cohort of 15.7 million who served. Their average age is 87.

In honor of Memorial Day, here are some thoughts about military service I recently shared with a WWII veteran:

Dear Mr. ________,

Born in 1973, I and my birth cohort have never known service in the way yours did. We registered for selective service, but participation in our era has always been voluntary. For many of us service has been an unknown concept in the sense of not being well understood outside of movies, books, and grandfathers' stories. Geopolitics had seemed a more appropriate backdrop for understanding events during the Gulf War era than duty or necessity.

As a postdoctoral scholar at the RAND Corporation early in the new millennium I began to think about military service in greater detail, still as an observer. RAND conducts many studies for the Pentagon, and I met a colleague there who had written her dissertation on the lifelong impacts and meanings of military service. Seven years later, she and I and other collaborators are conducting research in this area. We hope our efforts can ultimately inform policy as well as knowledge about how challenges affect who we are. Among other things, we are members of an Institute of Medicine committee convened to assess the challenges faced by service members and their families in the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For a member of the All Volunteer generation, it is a good feeling to provide public service in this way, adapting knowledge as best we can about the experiences of earlier generations. In many ways, your service and that of younger Americans was doubly valuable. It made our world safer then, and it also helps make future service members, veterans, and their families safer. I have been honored to play a small part in this.