For the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) generation — veterans whose service began after 9/11 and is commemorated for most by the award of the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal — our call to service was neither clarion nor compulsory. Our enlistment was provoked by our enemies, but not mandated by our leaders. Our initiative and passion are remembered fondly, both by quota-seeking recruiters and architects of counterinsurgency strategy. We were volunteers who incurred an eight-year military service obligation, of which most civilians are unaware.
In our generation, some of whom cast their first vote for Clinton or Dole, there were many who never anticipated a military life. This is a sentiment echoed by Major Benjamin Tallmadge, Yale College Class of 1773, in his memoirs. Yet three years after his degree and six months after July 4, 1776, he displayed a kindred initiative and became part of the Continental Army.
On Memorial Day, all citizens can rightfully sing paeans to warriors who gave the “last full measure of devotion.” Today, on Veterans Day 2011, 10 years after the beginning of our era, GWOT veterans must not only accept commensurate praise, but also remind one another that in serving, we have incurred both responsibilities and rights. Our legacy will not be defined by an invasion or a surge: it is not tactical. It must be defined postbellum, and if we choose to act it may require another personal transformation.
Our responsibilities have not been enumerated, however, and our rights are vulnerable to revision. We owe much to veterans from other eras, particularly the Vietnam era, but contemporary experiential models fail us. Once again, we must take initiative and volunteer. It is difficult to incur additional civic responsibility at a time when we have the choice to meet the personal demands of being students, partners or parents. But, once again, the GWOT generation may have to live a life of discomfort in order to serve our country.
We have a duty to build and repair institutions. Veterans are students of intense bureaucracy and formal organization. We should leverage our routinely martial ability to operate and innovate within the most constrictive organizations. In a time when institutions routinely fail and disappoint, we have an obligation to restore adequacy, if not excellence, to collective enterprises.
We also have a duty to protect and empower other veterans through advocacy. The most vulnerable among us receive inadequate support. Their trauma has not been salved. Capable, but ignorant, veterans fall prey to charlatans promising university degrees, durable goods or credit. Some of the most promising and talented student veterans receive incomplete financial support that compromises the intent of the post-9/11 GI Bill: fully funded tuition that leaves veterans debt free. Reservists, who remain “citizen-soldiers,” still confront discrimination and illegal actions during hiring and also within the workplace.
We have a duty to prepare for crisis. Before our service, sentinels waited for us to join their ranks. They trained us, protected us and, before 9/11, refined our military capabilities. Although it infringes on our personal freedom, we should consider reserve service. We should investigate continued federal service, including elected office. And while there is time, we should study foreign languages, live within other cultures and find useful seminars within the Academy. We should be a candid resource for those who seek to serve. We must eschew a terminus of service and seek actively continuity of service.
Major Tallmadge went on to serve in the House of Representatives during a period that included the War of 1812. His investment in the birth of our nation, turned into a duty to nurture our nation. The GWOT generation still possesses initiative and passion, but now we also have experience and, with hope, wisdom. Let us build and repair institutions, prepare for crisis and advocate for other veterans.
Rob Cuthbert is a special student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and a veteran of the United States Army.