Discussion: Public support and overall challenges to the military

Do you feel supported by the public in your service? What would you like to see from the general public that you don't currently see?

Laura Stromback ‘16: I consider myself very lucky to be serving as a United States service member in the present day, because the amount of support we receive from the American public is incredible.  I've interacted with a handful of international officers and officer-candidates, and it seems while many nations respect their service members, the level of gratitude and trust the American people hold for the DoD is unique.  While some people may disagree with political leaders' decisions to employ the DoD in certain countries, campaigns, etc, in my experience the American public is able to have strong individual opinions about operational decisions without projecting those individual agreements/disagreements onto the individual service member.  This is in stark contrast to the stories I've read about Vietnam veterans being spit on for involvement in a conflict most were drafted into.

If I had to name an area the American public could demonstrate more support for service members, the only suggestion I have pertains to military spouses. These men and women are willing to leave their families and careers to follow their military spouse to duty stations in a new place every 1-4 years.  Because they aren't in any one place for very long, it's often difficult for those who want to work to find a job that fairly reflects their level of education and experience. It would be an incredible support if businesses local to military bases were more willing to offer employment opportunities to a service member’s spouse based on his/her level of training, education, and competency, even though the business would lose that employee in a few years.

Collin Scarborough ‘16: Support for the military is all over this great nation, and the support encourages us to continue what we do. But support from the public is not a condition of my service. I will serve no matter the level of support from the people, and I challenge my fellow service members to have the same attitude. Like those who served before us during the Vietnam War - they came home to protests and attacks from various factions, but they still served. Even more noteworthy are those who saw the conditions of the war and the opposition to it, yet enlisted voluntarily to fight. We see this in Scripture: Christ was insulted, berated, and mocked as he gave his life for us, yet he still did. Christ is the ultimate example for believers when we need to see what service without support looks like. As we engage in our service, members of the military should not expect an outpouring of support. We should serve with veracity and discipline no matter our circumstances.

I would like to see more public engagement with service members. Gen Milley in his recent article “Three Things the Army Chief of Staff Wants You to Know” challenges service members to branch out of their bases and interact with their communities, not just people who support us, but those who do not. It is not easy, from a soldier’s perspective, to make friends outside of my circle at work. I do not share the same concerns, views, or experiences that many people I interact with do. But that should not stop me from joining a community group at my church where no one is a service member or knows a service member. I need to be open to them and I hope they are open to me. In the great family of God, the church, we should understand that all of us call the same God our lord and savior. We all cry to him and rely on him.

To my civilian friends, in particular those affiliated with the John Jay Institute, befriend service members. Ten percent of our alumni wear a uniform; become pen pals with one. Get to know us - you will be surprised how normal we are. We don’t just discuss the heavy topics of our current conflicts. We like to drink craft beer and binge watch Netflix on our days off. Some of us are married and others haven’t been on a date in so long we don't want to admit it! I challenge the public to earnestly pursue friendships with service members. I challenge service members in church communities to share their lives and concerns so that we will share the experience of service, not as isolated individuals with differing perspectives, but together as the body of Christ. Those outside of the military will not understand the costs of war until they walk through those sacrifices with their friends in uniform.

Andrew Bossert ‘15: The most vital aspect for the general public to understand about supporting the military is to simply understand and appreciate the work that those in the military do on a daily basis.

What particular challenges do you see facing the modern military? How can these be overcome?

Laura Stromback: I think the most critical aspect of our military is that we are an international extension of American values.  There is a marked difference between how we conduct ourselves and how our enemies do, and this is because of a great rift in basic beliefs about human rights, personal liberties, etc.  This value system is what makes us the "good guys" versus a band of international mercenaries.  This values system needs to be affirmed and protected in our military for the good of our nation and our veterans alike.  During my residency with the 2016 class of Saratoga Fellows, we studied the severe moral injury a great deal of service members suffer as a result of doing their job on deployments.  A public example of this epidemic is the alarmingly high rate of PTSD victims among our veterans.  The crucial importance of moral right and wrong to servicemembers is also highlighted in Karl Marlantes' "What it's like to go to war," where the author relates his experiences as a rifle platoon commander in Vietnam and his life after returning to the U.S. We simply cannot be a morally ambiguous force achieving goals of mere national strategy and expect our service members to be able to cope with losses they experience and that they inflict on others.  We need a reason to fight, and it needs to be a good one.  

I firmly believe that while our military is not perfect, it does an enormous amount of good.  I want to use the power I have as an officer and the trust I have from the American people to worthy ends.  I was talking to a peer this week about superheroes.  We agreed that we have no desire to resemble morally-opportunistic characters such as the Greek and Roman deities of old, or more modern characters such as Iron Man or Black Widow.  We desperately want to be Wonder Woman, or Captain America - pure in heart and deed, and restoring order and good to a world of chaos.  Life isn't a comic book - war is messy, fast-paced, and full of uncertainties.  We assume a great deal of risk to our spiritual health as well as our physical well-being engaging this messiness.  But this risk is worthwhile when we are the good guys.  As much as possible we need to know why our fight is a moral one; and when it isn't a strict dichotomy of good vs evil we do need to recognize that too. Obscuring reality doesn't do any favors to the person who will come face-to-face with it time and time again.  But if we cannot truly call our enemies (the leaders and their ends if not the individual soldiers we engage with) evil, we should exercise extreme caution in engaging that enemy.  Lives don't merit being lost over a mere difference of opinion - an "alternate" worldview.  We need to have the courage to believe in our national values as good and willing to fight for, rather than good "for us."

Collin Scarborough: Two great challenges the modern military faces involve two different categories: the modern battlefield and the modern society. On the battlefield the military faces the physical threats of the Islamic State, the Global War on Terrorism, and the potential for armed conflict with Russia, China, and the DPRK. All public and well known to society, these challenges are on the forefront of the public’s mind and interest, and these challenges are being addressed at the appropriate levels of command. What is not very public and well known and not widely discussed is the shift from Expeditionary Warfare (large scale conflicts fought on defined battlespace) to the use of surgical and precise military action throughout the world to combat specific threats. For example, the use of American Special Operations Forces in Yemen, where war has not been declared, to capture key leaders with global terrorists networks. The pace of these operations has taken a toll on the men who execute them (Army Special Forces, 75th Ranger Regiment, SEAL Team 6, Delta Force, etc.) These men are stretched and pushed beyond the limits of human capability time and again with incredible results. But these operators need to be taken care of more to ensure that they are returning to the fight fully healed and as ready as they can be. We have lost more special forces soldiers in Africa this year than in the Middle East. Six Green berets have made the ultimate sacrifice at the time of this publishing fighting Islamists in West Africa. They are also taking the fight to Boko Haram, known for their kidnapping of 273 girls in Chibok. These conflicts are not secret, they are public, but the general public does not know about them. They are not spoken of in the media or by the pundits. For the most part the only people who know about these conflicts are the ones fighting it, their families, and the ones getting ready to go to those fights.

On the social change side of the issue, the greatest challenge facing the modern military is the lack of guidance from strategic level officials on recent changes to military policy regarding
transgendered and homosexual soldiers. When lack of guidance is the follow up to memorandums from high levels of leadership, lower level leaders are left to their own devices to interpret and create their own policy at the tactical and operational levels. Directives are outpacing supportive regulations at an alarming rate. Leaders are now risk-averse to make decisions regarding social changes within their unit for fear of backlash from higher level leaders. We also need to know what the moral directive is for the new policies we are being handed. Soldiers are taught to take the initiative in the absence of orders, but when taking initiative is punished, soldiers will be quick to demur. 

The Army repeatedly calls for leaders to take initiative and make morally courageous decisions.
All well and good, but where are these moral decisions being made from? What does the soldier bring to the table when they make a moral decision? This is why the JJI exists, to show leaders where to look to make moral decisions: our faith in Christ and the guidance of Scripture. The greatest challenge I see for the modern military is figuring out how to equip soldiers to make the moral decisions that our leaders expect us to make. Without a solid foundation of values and ethics, disaster will ensue when we are left to our own devices to make morally relevant decisions. For believers, we have it easier than our non-believing friends. Scripture shows us what morally conscious lives look like: Christ Jesus. He was repeatedly confronted with moral decisions and situations, yet he remained without sin. Look to Christ for how to make tough decisions and we will lead well.

Andrew Bossert: The greatest challenges to the modern military are on two fronts. The first, from an operational perspective, we have the smallest number of Americans currently serving in the armed forces coupled with outdated technology and equipment.  On the opposite side, political and social movements are really changing the way the military looks.  We have turned in the direction of ensuring the military adheres to the cultural shifts in American society and conforms to political pressures.  This is taking precious resources such as manning and funding away from mission objectives and from an already underfunded, undermanned military.


About these John Jay Institute alumni:

Laura Stromback is a U.S. Marine Corps second lieutenant currently in the naval aviation training pipeline in Pensacola, FL.  She is originally from Chandler, AZ, and graduated from the Naval Academy in 2016 with a B.S. in Systems Engineering.  She is a class of 2016 Saratoga Fellow, and aspires to fly the MV-22 Osprey.

Robert C. Scarborough is a graduate of the Citadel where he  earned a degree in English and a minor in French. He is currently working on his Masters of Divinity from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary concentrating in International Missions and Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. He is currently a Platoon Leader with the 75th Fires Brigade at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

Andrew Bossert is the Officer In Charge and Large Construction Contracts Manager for the Infrastructure Support Flight at the 30th Contracting Squadron, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California where he supervises a flight of twenty one personnel with in the construction flight. The flight provides construction contracting support to Vandenberg Air Force Base, including assets of the Western Range and numerous tenant organizations. Second Lieutenant Bossert was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He entered activity duty as a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program at The University of North Texas.