- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2001

As we observe Memorial Day, our minds naturally turn toward the brave men and women serving in our Armed Services. The April 2001 standoff between the U.S. and China over a downed American spy plane dramatically reiterated the unique and difficult demands placed upon them and their loved ones. After all, the 24 EP-3 crew members were more than just service personnel they were also fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. Their families undoubtedly felt as if they were being held captive right alongside their loved ones in China.
Before the war in Vietnam, our Armed Forces were highly oriented toward drafted, single men. Today, by contrast, the military contains many more professionals with specialized skills, many of whom have families. According to the Defense Department, in 1953, only 33 percent of enlisted members were married. When the draft ended in 1973, the figure had risen to 43 percent. Today, 52 percent of active-duty enlisted individuals and 71 percent of officers are married. Children are a significant factor, too. Currently, 46 percent of all people on active duty have children.
In an interview with the National Journal, Laurel Lewis, wife of an Air Force captain, described her husbands frantic schedule and the strains it placed on their marriage. He was deployed to Kuwait on three days notice and stayed for more than five months, during which time the Lewises spoke to each other less than a half an hour each week. Capt. Lewis had resolved to end his military career early and seek a job in the private sector. Unfortunately, he was killed along with 11 other men when two Blackhawk helicopters collided during a training mission in 1998.
Military service is financially difficult, as well. More than 5,000 military families are currently on food stamps. A private first class makes $15,684 a year in base pay, a staff sergeant makes $24,552, and a first lieutenant makes $31,440. While medical care and various benefits supplement these incomes, they cant begin to compete with civilian wages. The White House reports that a typical member of the Armed Forces earns 13 percent less than his or her civilian counterpart for the same type of work. In addition, military personnel living overseas are not eligible for food stamps or a number of other assistance programs.
In a recent study, more than 70 percent of surveyed officers said "I can no longer balance the needs of the Army with the needs of my family." And as frustrated soldiers end their careers early, the military is left seriously undermanned. At the start of the Clinton era, 85 percent of Air Force combat units were considered to be operating at the militarys best level of readiness. Today, that figure has declined to just 65 percent. Also, 2000 marked the 5th consecutive year that the Army and Navy would fail to commission enough new officers to meet their goals.
Thankfully, it appears that our new president is taking positive steps to address the situation. Earlier this year, Mr. Bush announced plans for $5.7 billion in spending for men and women in the military most of which will go toward raises and improved health benefits. He plans to request another $400 million to improve military housing.
Even so, better barracks, higher pay and improved morale will only go so far. At the end of the day, military service is a demanding and difficult calling. Thousands of men and women join the ranks of our Armed Forces every year knowing that they will face physical danger, emotional strain and periods of long and indefinite separation from loved ones. They do so out of a deep sense of honor and a strong desire to defend our freedom. We must never take for granted those who have sacrificed so much on our behalf.
A retired member of the U.S. Army recently wrote a letter that has been widely circulated on the Internet. He contrasted the death of Dale Earnhardt in the Daytona 500 with the deaths of seven U.S. Army soldiers in a training accident in Hawaii. The question he poses serves as a reminder that we need to take better care of our service personnel and remember them in our prayers. This is part of what he wrote:
"I take nothing away from Dale Earnhardt, but ask you to perform this simple test. Ask any of your friends if they knew who was the NASCAR driver killed on 18 February 2001. Then ask them if they can name one of the seven soldiers who died in Hawaii … Dale Earnhardt died driving for fame and glory in the Daytona 500. The nation mourns. Seven soldiers died to protect our freedom."

James C. Dobson, Ph.D, is president of the Colorado-based organization Focus on the Family.

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