Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Before You Criticize the Military, January 28, 2006


THINK ABOUT THIS….Much criticism has been thrown around over the past year or so about how the military has been aggressively recruiting underprivileged, poorly educated young Americans. Some have even gone as far as to call the military racist. While on the surface this might seem to be true to those who are just as uneducated as the ones they claim to speak for, lets look a little deeper.

For years, all five active duty military branches of service and the different reserve and guard units across the country have provided an attractive alternative for a segment of our society that has relatively little hope and few options when it comes to their future. While it is true that many of these young people have lived their lives thus far in poverty and despair, it is also true that in many cases, it is their community leaders and even some family members perpetuating these conditions. Schools that fail miserably and families that don’t get involved are a big part of that. Politicians that tie the hands of law enforcement when it comes to dealing with gang and drug activity and illegal immigration also play a role in the creation of these conditions. As a result, the young people whose only transgression was to be unfortunate enough to be born into that situation are faced with few options….join a gang, fly under the gang radar hoping to survive at a dead end minimum wage job, or find a way out. For decades many have chosen that latter.

Those who have chosen the military as an option suddenly realize that there is a whole different world at their fingertips. When it comes to education and job training in the military, there isn’t an institution on this planet that offers as many options. If you can imagine it, the military needs it. Doctors, lawyers, law enforcement, religious leaders, construction workers, journalist, Radio and TV talent, barbers, librarians, electricians, food workers, supply specialists, pilots are just a small sample of the careers available to those who are willing to step up and make that comittment to themselves and their country.

Education is a major part of military life. In order to advance in rank, certain courses pertaining to the service member’s career have to be completed. Beyond that, there are countless numbers of educational and self-help opportunities available. Everything from masters, bachelors, and associates degrees from major four year accredited schools that have classrooms on bases and on ships worldwide to classes as simple as auto repair, stop smoking, and healthy cooking classes at m-w-r centers on bases around the world. In most cases, these classes are free or available at drastically reduced tuition costs!

One example of a person I know personally that took advantage of the generosity of the United States Navy was a young man named Richard Chao. As a young Chinese man, Richard new that there had to be more to life than what he had experienced as a young man in a country with an oppressive way of life. He came to America seeking a better life for himself and his family and he found it with the Navy. Richard decided to attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis and study public relations. After getting his degree from the Academy he received his commission and became an officer in the USN. I met Richard while I was assigned to the USS Midway CV41. Lt. Chao was the Midway’s Public Affair’s officer and my Division Officer. He didn’t talk about his past much, but on one rare occasion, during the first Gulf War, he did share some of his story. He told me that if it weren’t for the Navy, he would probably still be in China struggling daily just to survive. Lt. Chao finished his naval career a few years ago and now makes his home in New York, bringing home a six-figure salary working for a high-powered PR firm in Manhattan. The Navy gave Richard Chao the opportunity to make huge improvements in his life and the lives of his family. Today they are reaping the benefits of that opportunity. That same opportunity that is afforded to many others everyday.

Finally, the most important contribution the military can make in an individual’s life is what I like to call “life lessons.” These are the lessons that can’t be bought with tuition, learned by sitting through lectures, or read in some overpriced textbook. During my time in the Navy, I learned many of these life lessons. Being born and raised in the southern United States, I grew up with a very narrow viewpoint of the world I lived in. Once I started traveling abroad, I began an amazing journey in which many of my viewpoints on many different things changed. The first thing I learned was how much we as Americans take our existence for granted. If you need to run down to the corner market and pickup a gallon of milk at midnight, you can. If you get the munchies and want to hit the Taco Bell drive thru at 3 in the morning, you can. In many places, the citizens couldn’t fathom being able to do that. Yet, Americans generally expect to be able to do that and those are just a couple of very generic examples. We won’t even get into political speech or educational opportunities.

Another life lesson is the building of character. Part of that character building is developing the ability and desire to put aside personal comfort and safety to help others who for whatever reason need help. A perfect example of this is the current operations in Iraq. Another would be the liberation of Kuwait, our Bosnia operations of the 90's, and our military operations in the Philippines after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. Then there’s the importance of teamwork, being able to exist with and learn from people who are different than you. Learning that no matter what your background or socio-economic status, everyone has the ability to succeed if motivated. And that at the most basic levels, despite the saber rattling of various world governments and religious/agenda driven groups, most humans around the world are all the same at the core of their being. They have the same wants, needs, and desires for themselves and their families whether they live in Middle America, New York, and Los Angeles or the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. These are just a few of the “life lessons” that can’t be learned in lecture halls in an Ivy League school or on left coast campuses like UC Berkley or Davis. Ironically enough, these "life lessons," as I call them, are the some of the very same personality traits constantly hailed as critical to positive human evolution by the very same people currently calling military members racist.

There’s no doubt about it, serving our country is a dangerous job and sometimes, not a very pleasant one. It does, though, have an extremely positive side for those who have the intelligence and ability to take the time to look past the tanks, guns, and planes. The next time you run across someone screaming about how the military is a racist organization, remind them otherwise and of how they can take advantage of the military opportunity not only for themselves, but for the world around them. And in the end making it a better world for us all.

(originally posted 1-28-06 on Yahoo 360)

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