Gates Praises Service, Sacrifice of All-Volunteer Force
(October 3, 2010)
|WASHINGTON, Sept. 29, 2010 – The American people are losing
contact with those who make up its military, and the nation
needs to understand the service and sacrifices that U.S.
military personnel and their families make, Defense
Secretary Robert M. Gates said at Duke University's Page
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates speaks to
ROTC Cadets from Duke University, University of North Carolina,
North Carolina State, and North Carolina Central University at Duke
University, N.C., Sept. 29, 2010. DOD photo by Cherie Cullen
The secretary spoke to the audience about the achievements of the all-volunteer
military force and the stresses and strains it faces.
Since 1993, Gates has worked with young people, first as the president of Texas
A&M University and now as the Defense Department's top civilian leader.
“Some of my warmest memories of Texas A&M are of walking around the
48,000-student campus and talking to students – most of them between 18 and 24
years old – seeing them out on their bikes, walking, even occasionally studying
or going to class,” Gates said. “For nearly four years now, I've been in a job
that also makes me responsible for the well-being of an even larger number of
people in the same 18- to 24-year-old age group.
“But instead of wearing J-Crew, they wear body armor,” he
continued. “Instead of carrying book bags they carry assault
rifles. And a number of them – far too many – will not come
home to their parents.”|
Gates said the young men and women in today's military had
joined up while the country was at war.
And the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns “represent the first
protracted, large-scale conflicts since our Revolutionary
War fought entirely by volunteers,” he added.
Unlike the draftee armies and navies of the past, a very
small percentage of Americans are defending the United
States today, Gates said. There are, he said, roughly 2.4
million active duty, Guard and reserve soldiers, sailors,
airmen and Marines defending a country with more than 300
million people. Put another way, he added, less that 1
percent of the population has shouldered the national
“This tiny sliver of America has achieved extraordinary
things under the most trying of circumstances,” Gates said
of the members of today's U.S. military. “It is the
most-professional, the best-educated, the most-capable force
this country has ever sent into battle.”
But this professionalism, he said, comes at a cost – not
just for the servicemembers, and their families – but also
in changes to “the relationship between those in uniform and
the wider society they have sworn to protect.”
The United States traditionally fielded small military
forces that expanded in times of need, Gates said. In the
1930s, he said, the U.S. Army ranked 17th in the world in
size – just behind Romania. In 1945, he added, more than 10
million Americans were on active Army duty. During the Cold
War years, he said, the United States needed to maintain a
large military and resorted to a peacetime draft to fill the
Americans, from all social and economic classes, were called
on to serve during the draft years, Gates said.
But this changed, he said, near the end of the Vietnam War.
In 1973, the draft ended and the all-volunteer force began.
“Over the past four decades, after a difficult transition
period during the 1970s, the all-volunteer experiment has
proven to be a remarkable success,” Gates said. “The doubts
– and there were many inside and outside the military – were
And today, the all-volunteer force is key to achieving
progress in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates said.
“Whatever the shortcomings there may have been in Iraq and
Afghanistan stem from failures and miscalculations at the
top, not those doing the fighting and leading on the
ground,” the secretary said. “It has taken every ounce of
our troops' skill, initiative and commitment to battle a
cunning and adaptive enemy at the front, while overcoming
bureaucratic lassitude and sometimes worse at the rear.”
Gates said the amount of experience possessed by today's
servicemembers puts them on another level. For example, he
said, one study completed in 1969 said less than 20 percent
of enlisted Army soldiers had more than four years of
service. Today, more than 50 percent of today's enlisted
soldiers have served four years, Gates said.
“Going back to compulsory service, in addition to being
politically impossible, is highly impractical given the
kinds of technical skills, experience and attributes needed
to be successful on the battlefield in the 21st century,” he
said. “For that reason, reinstituting the draft is
overwhelmingly opposed by the military's leadership.”
However, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates said, have
placed tremendous strain on U.S. forces and their families.
“The all-volunteer force conceived in the 1970s was designed
to train, prepare, and deploy for a major and quick
conventional conflict, either against the Soviet Union on
the plains of Central Europe or a contingency such as the
first Gulf War against Iraq in 1991,” Gates said.
“By contrast, the recent post-9/11 campaigns have required
prolonged, persistent combat and support from across the
military,” he continued. “Since the invasion of Iraq, more
than a million soldiers and Marines have been deployed into
the fight. The Navy has put nearly 100,000 sailors on the
ground while maintaining its sea commitments around the
globe. And the Air Force, by one count, has been at war
since 1991, when it first began enforcing the no-fly zone
Today, all services are making their recruiting quotas,
Gates said, noting that “in some cases the highest
propensity to reenlist is found in units that are in the
Servicemembers' camaraderie and commitment is real,” the
secretary said. “But so is the strain – on troops, and
especially on their families.” The consequences of strain
caused by multiple deployments, he said, include more
anxiety and disruption inflicted on children, increased
domestic strife and a corresponding rising divorce rate and,
most tragically, a growing number of suicides.
Junior and mid-level officers and sergeants in ground combat
and support specialties are exposed to these strains the
most, Gates said.
“These young men and women have seen the complex, grueling,
maddening face of asymmetric warfare in the 21st century up
close,” the secretary said. “They've lost friends in combat.
Some are struggling psychologically with what they've seen
and heard and felt on the battlefield. And yet, they keep
Today's young commissioned and noncommissioned officers are
the most battle-tested, innovative and impressive group of
military leaders this country has produced in a long time,
the secretary said.
“These are the people we need to retain and lead the armed
forces in the future,” he said.
But servicemembers also need to have a normal life when
they're away from the battlefield, Gates said.
“No matter how patriotic, how devoted they are,” he said,
“at some point they will want to have the semblance of a
normal life – getting married, starting a family, going to
college or graduate school, seeing their children grow up –
all of which they have justly earned.”
Increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps, the
drawdown in Iraq, and other initiatives will increase the
amount of time servicemembers spend between deployments,
Gates said. “But in reality, the demands on a good part of
our military will continue for years to come,” he said. “And
it begs the question: How long can these brave and broad
young shoulders carry the burden that we as a military, as a
government, as a society, continue to place on them?”
Most Americans honor and respect those who have chosen to
serve, but for most citizens, the war is an abstraction, the
secretary said. “[It is] a distant and unpleasant series of
news items that do not affect them personally,” Gates said.
“Even [after] 9/11, in the absence of a draft, for a growing
number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how
laudable, has become something for other people to do.”
Since the mass armies of the 1940s to 1970s, Gates said,
fewer and fewer Americans know someone with military
experience in their family or social circle.
“In broad demographic terms, the armed forces continue to be
largely representative of the country as a whole, drawing
predominantly from America's working and middle classes,”
the secretary said.
The nearly four decades of an all-volunteer force has
reinforced a series of demographic, cultural, and
institutional shifts, Gates said, affecting who is most
likely to serve in the military and from where. “Studies
have shown that one of the biggest factors in propensity to
join the military is growing up near those who have [served]
or are serving,” he said.
“In this country, that propensity to serve is most
pronounced in the South and the Mountain West, and in rural
areas and small towns nationwide – a propensity that well
exceeds these communities' proportion of the population as a
whole,” he said. “Currently, the percentage of the force
from the Northeast, the West Coast and major cities
continues to decline.”
This trend, Gates said, also affects the recruiting and
educating of new officers.
“The state of Alabama, with a population of less than 5
million, has 10 Army ROTC host programs,” the secretary
said. “The Los Angeles metro area, population over 12
million, has four host ROTC programs. And the Chicago metro
area, population 9 million, has three.”
There is a risk, over time, of developing a cadre of
military leaders that -- politically, culturally and
geographically -- have less and less in common with the
people they have sworn to defend, he said.
Gates said students attending the nation's elite colleges
need to step forward and volunteer for military service.
“Over the past generation many commentators have lamented
the absence of ROTC from the Ivy League and other selective
universities,” he said, noting that “institutions that used
to send hundreds of graduates into the armed forces now
struggle to commission a handful of officers every year.”
Gates said university faculty and administrators banned ROTC
from many elite campuses during the Vietnam War and some
continue to bar the military because of the “Don't Ask,
Don't Tell” law. The secretary praised Duke University,
based at Durham, N.C., for “being a notable and admirable
exception, with your three [ROTC] host programs.”
“I am encouraged that several other comparable universities
... are at least re-considering their position on military
recruiting and officer training,” Gates added.
Yet, the presence of on-campus ROTC programs won't do any
good without volunteers, the secretary said. ROTC training
and follow on military experience, he said, gives young
officers “extraordinary responsibility at a young age -– not
just for the lives of your troops, but for missions and
decisions that may change the course of history.”
“In addition to being in the fight,” he continued, “our
young military leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan have, to one
degree or another, found themselves dealing with
development, governance, agriculture, health, diplomacy.
They've done all this at an age when many of their peers are
reading spreadsheets and making photocopies.”
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
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