Veterans Day Remarks from Mr. Daniel Feehan, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Readiness)

The following remarks were made by Mr. Daniel Feehan, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Readiness), at a Veteran’s Day Celebration hosted by the Georgetown University Student Veterans Association on 10 November 2016.

Thank you to the Georgetown University Student Veteran Association. It is an honor to join you for this Veteran’s Day celebration. Also, happy 241st birthday to the United States Marine Corps! This is incredible for me to be here as I used to be standing there amidst the Hoya ROTC Battalion, unsure of what my own military service would bring.

While it is not lost on me that I used to play Ultimate Frisbee there, that same field trained Soldiers for World War I. Buildings on this campus housed soldiers as they prepared for World War II. Red Square behind me was the site of important protests both against the Vietnam War and in my own time here, the Iraq War. There is great history all around us important to what Veterans Day must be: an honoring of service, but also a time for conversation about America’s engagement in armed conflict, and a time to talk about the nature of military service itself.

It isn’t hard to see that people are divided on those, and many other questions, in America right now. We’re hearing that word a lot these days: division. Our country feels like it’s in a fractured state as we try to understand this week and this year. My social media feeds over the last two days have been filled with messages showing how one side can’t “understand” the other, and also showing a lack of conversation capable of bridging that divide.

With that in mind, I’d like to take a step back to another challenging time in America—one before Twitter and Facebook, if you can believe it—one that was arguably the most divided period in our history.

There are more than 7,500 undergraduate students attending Georgetown this year. But back in 1861, the student population dropped to just 17, as the Civil War altered life everywhere.

More than 1,100 students and alumni took up arms for both the Union and the Confederacy. Two hours from here, these Hoyas likely found each other across a Peach Orchard at the Battle of Gettysburg. And after the fighting was over, some of the same group that endured through the conflict found themselves back here as student veterans, with the full knowledge and weight of what war is and the burning desire to bring peace from it. It was then that the student body chose the school colors of Blue and Gray to own and symbolize the very different perspectives and backgrounds they came from and wished to acknowledge in each other.

I imagine the conversations that were had on these grounds, in these buildings from 1865 onwards, their oppositional nature held against the divisive background of the Reconstruction era. I think about the disagreements had based on differing lived experiences. And I think of the importance of the hard wrought unity gained from that conversation, that engagement between the Blue and the Gray.

Veterans took on that work here at Georgetown. And I’m going to ask you today to continue engaging in it – and not just you. All of us. Because political and cultural divisions aren’t the only challenges we face today, on Veterans Day. We also face the need to bring together those in the military and those outside of it, for the mutual benefit of everyone, and for the good and security of the nation to which we are all so dedicated.

For service members around the world, let’s remember that nothing changed Tuesday night. They executed missions Tuesday, they executed missions yesterday. That is the nature of the social contract between our military and our country. Some share the burden for all.

In a post 9/11 world, we are accustomed to hearing about the challenges our veterans face as they reintegrate into civilian life. However, we don’t hear as much about the benefits they bring to society in terms of practical skills, character, perspective, and habits of mind formed during their military service.

How much our nation benefits from our warriors’ return depends upon the way we welcome them home. Our veterans are many things: dedicated, patriotic, and selfless, and doing incredible things after their time in service like the Greatest Generations before them. Though too often, it seems like many Americans do not fully grasp the sacrifices they make and the value they give back to society as they reintegrate into civilian life.

One of our nation’s founding precepts was the citizen-soldier. The idea was to make war only when we must – and when we did, every American needed to do their part. Throughout our history, we bought war bonds, rationed food and clothing, gathered scrap metal, tended victory gardens, retooled industries, and signed up for the draft. At the end of World War II, nearly 10 percent of our entire population was on active-duty service.

Today, with an all-volunteer force less than 1 percent of our population serves in uniform, far fewer Americans are connected to the military than ever before. This has changed how Americans view their military and veterans, especially over the last 15 years. We have been at war, but our nation as a whole has not. And gratitude toward those who do serve, even when genuine, can sometimes seem rehearsed and uncomfortable. Meanwhile, it’s gotten easier for service members, veterans, and military families to look in the mirror and see themselves as part of a Spartan clan, a warrior caste – distancing themselves from their fellow citizens.

I worry about what this means for our country.

One consequence is that too many Americans haven’t fully reckoned with the human toll of our nation’s wars. Because our military is so agile and resilient, many civilians now see it as a machine that can always get the job done, no matter the strain. At the other extreme, some have come to see those who put on the uniform as victims of their military service.

These false perceptions fuel dangerous stereotypes about our troops and veterans. And they ignore that our military is made of people—human beings who, like any other, need time and support to recover from the pressures of constant war… who make tremendous sacrifices but also find great meaning and purpose in their service.

America and its military face a creeping moral hazard… where, because war’s potential costs are borne by too few, it can become too easy for our nation to pursue unwise or unjustified policies.

These problems have no single or easy solution. We prize the professionalism of an all-volunteer force, but too much separation from broader society risks losing sight of war’s true costs.

We must strive to bridge the divide – and Today, that is your charge, as well as ours as a country.

It’s critical to remember that while our our military is made up of only 2 million people, there are roughly 22 million veterans in the U.S. today, as well as far more family members of those veterans woven throughout American society. After all, you may serve for a couple of years, but you are a veteran for life. 1,500 of those veterans and their family members are in this community with incredible perspective.

Today, our military and veterans get a lot of support in certain ways from our government. But the truth is that we can’t really “support our troops” unless we “know our troops.”

Every American has a role in making that happen, and this is on all of us—service members, veterans, family members, and civilians.

The veterans on campus have a role to play. Next time someone thanks you for your service, start a conversation. If the military gave you a sense of direction and purpose, tell them about it. Tell them what skills you’ve gained and why we need Americans from all walks of life to join the military—because having the best people, wherever they started out, is critical to our strength and effectiveness as a force.

Some things may be harder to share. Just be honest, and use what you’re comfortable with. Even then, you’ll have a much bigger impact than saying nothing at all.

I want to note to the ROTC cadets and currently serving students. You yourselves will be a veteran and civilian someday once you leave the military. Whenever you leave the military, keep those conversations going by being engaged in your community. We need you to help your fellow citizens get to know the military, but we also need you to keep making a difference in the world. It won’t be a rucksack or a flag on your shoulders… it’ll be the responsibilities that every American citizen shares. So when you hang up the uniform, find another way to contribute. Whatever you do, make sure it helps you find meaning and purpose. America needs your hard-earned leadership both in and outside of your uniform, maybe now more than ever.

One group who doesn’t always get the recognition they deserve that can help bridge this gap, are the family members that support our service members and veterans. Family members have a unique perspective on the military. They themselves as civilians know and understand the military and deal with the challenges that come with supporting their service member.

If you are a family member of a service member or veteran I encourage you to help educate your fellow citizens. Have conversations about what you know about the military and what you yourself experienced in supporting that service member and veteran.

The rest of the nation has work to do, as well.

Don’t let our troops and veterans feel like they’re kept at arm’s length. Even if you think you could never understand what they’ve gone through, make an effort. Most veterans don’t want to be glorified or given special treatment. They just want to be understood. That means getting to know our nation’s military as individuals—as real people, not just troops or veterans. Rather thank stopping at “Thank you for your service,” ask a veteran “Why did you serve?” and start a conversation.

Don’t make too much or too little of their experience—use their experience. The 9/11 generation volunteered to serve at a time of war, and they have a strong desire to continue leading lives of purpose. Their skills should be prized by any organization that wants to succeed.

We also need to foster a more widespread commitment to national service—one that’s deeply rooted in our families, schools, and communities. Service is ultimately about people, and while it’s a responsibility every American should share, we don’t all have to wear the uniform. It could be through programs like AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, or Teach for America. If every young American grew up knowing that their parents, neighbors, teachers, and friends all expected them to devote at least a year of their lives to some form of service, the benefits would be immeasurable—to them, and to the world.

However, we do need to be clear-eyed. Even if we do all of this and more, the separation between the military and civilian society may never be eliminated completely. What we should work toward is an America that’s more engaged with its military, and with the full costs and consequences of going to war… an America where the military invites and welcomes civilian engagement, including criticism, and civilians fulfill their duty to more deeply engage with and challenge the military.

Being humble and open to criticism is central to our character—as a nation, and as a military.

I know it is a goal of Georgetown to make a community of student veterans, students, and those in the administration who can support, network, socialize, and assist each other as they achieve their educational goals.

So on Veterans Day and beyond I challenge the veterans, students, and staff to start an open dialogue about this issue. It is not enough to say “Thank you for your service.” Let’s go beyond the “thank yous” and try to learn from each other’s personal experiences in real human interaction.

This next Presidential administration has big challenges ahead. We have been at war continuously for 15 years, and our country is challenged in real human and technological terms to keep doing so in unending fashion. The next administration must decide how it will use its all-volunteer force, a force as powerful as it is fragile. It must decide how it will resource our military in the broader context of resourcing our entire government, as one can simply not just grow our forces. Finally, it must decide how we think about the future of our military, one increasingly and in my mind dangerously a family business. The greatest mistake anyone could make would be to believe that these are questions only the Administration itself can decide. You, the 700+ members of the student veteran community here have to be an important voice, just as the 22 million veterans in the country do. But collectively WE as citizens have a role in shaping the answers to these critical questions.

In 1865, this student body, this community, this country needed to figure out fundamental questions, too, most importantly—who and what they were going to be.

Flashing forward to today in 2016 and the divisiveness we now find ourselves immersed in. Will we choose to be the blue OR gray, or the blue AND gray?

Thank you.

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