A few years ago, I retired from the U.S. Army after 36 years in service, and every autumn, a career of vivid memories comes into focus as bright as the colors of the leaves falling around us.
The catalyst for these memories? Veterans Day. Before we carve a turkey or unwrap any gifts, Veterans Day gives us an opportunity to pause and express gratitude for our military service members. On this day, we are reminded that a strong nation is one built on a foundation of sacrifice. This sacrifice comes in many forms – whether leaving family behind for a lengthy deployment or risking your life to defend our nation at home and abroad. These sacrifices are substantial, and we must pause to appreciate all those who solemnly swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
For thousands of young Americans, the military is a ladder to a successful life of purpose. Those who join give much, and they receive much in return. The military provides them ample opportunities for personal and professional development, a place for them to grow and find themselves. Military service is a path to achieving the American dream.
Unfortunately, this path is in serious jeopardy. According to the Department of Defense more than 70 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds in the United States cannot serve in the military, primarily because they are too poorly educated, too overweight, or have a serious criminal record. As a retired lieutenant general and volunteer member of the nonprofit organization Mission: Readiness, I view this as a matter of national security.
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While we face significant challenges, we should all be proud that our women and men in uniform are working nonstop to protect our freedoms. Today’s service members are more educated and technologically advanced than in any time in our nation’s history. They must quickly comprehend complex instructions, master advanced equipment and challenging software, exhibit well-developed communication and social skills, and execute complicated missions with the goal of preserving the safety and security of people across the globe.
To ensure we have a strong nation, a secure future, and the opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of the next generation of veterans, we need to help America’s youth succeed academically, stay physically fit, and abide by the law. In part, we can accomplish this by expanding high-quality early childhood education programs, increasing access to healthier food at school, and improving the quality and quantity of physical education.
Veterans Day is a gift, and we should exercise it with the same pride, passion and enthusiasm as the more traditional holidays scheduled over the weeks ahead. As you celebrate, consider cultivating a deeper level of engagement within your community to urge strategic, research-based investments in America’s youth. Doing so will help preserve our national security and the opportunities for future generations to serve our great nation.
Today, in particular, let us be thankful for our veterans. Happy Veterans Day!
Michael Vane of Tollhouse is a lieutenant general (retired), U.S. Army.