My brother-in-law, Birkley Wical, just celebrated his 39th birthday. What makes it significant is not that he is rapidly approaching the big 4-0, though that certainly gives those of us in the family who’ve already hit that milestone some satisfaction. More significant is the fact that it coincides with 20 years in the Air Force.
He’s now eligible to retire with a pension, though not a generous one - NCOs don’t get rich in the service. But he’s been hoping to make master sergeant, in which case he might stay in. It hasn’t been an easy life, and I applaud him, as well as my sister, nephew, and niece, for enduring it.
Americans have grown used to nearly costless wars. The New York Times headlined one story during the war in Iraq: “Invading Forces Capture Key Bridge - More American Deaths.” It left readers to ponder which was the more interesting nugget of news - that a bridge was taken, or that U.S. soldiers died doing so.
That Americans had died in battle was not considered to be news in the Korean or Vietnam Wars, World Wars I and II, and certainly not in the Civil War, America’s costliest conflict. In all of those wars the casualty lists were long. The price of serving was inevitable and evident to all.
Despite complaints about the American public’s low tolerance for causalities, it obviously has accepted huge losses when it believed the goal to be worthwhile. And it almost certainly would accept even more if perceived America’s survival to be at stake. In contrast, tracking down one of many warlords didn’t seem worth the 19 dead Rangers in Mogadishu.
The Clinton administration thought Americans would react the same way in Kosovo when it decided to impose an outside settlement in one of the smaller of a score of civil wars around the world. Thus the bombing from 15,000 feet and refusal to mount a ground invasion.
We were lucky and the American public’s willingness to accept losses wasn’t seriously tested in the current war. Even some unexpected Iraqi resistance was not enough to generate the kind of carnage seen in past wars, when Uncle Sam’s qualitative and technological dominance was not so great.
Yet while the casualties were mercifully low, every one left a family in anguish. And other families breathing a sad sigh of temporary relief.
Moreover, every potential casualty - that is, every serviceman or woman in harm’s way - left a family worried, nervous, and on edge. With units on the move, people, including some friends of mine, could only catch TV and scan the newspapers for an indication as to the whereabouts of their son or daughter. And for evidence that their loved one was not likely the one killed, wounded, or captured.
It’s an experience that I’ve largely avoided. I grew up a military brat, with great respect for the profession of arms but not desiring to enter it myself. It takes special commitment to be willing to turn over control of one’s life to a boss as fickle as Uncle Sam.
My father was career Air Force, but he forecast weather for combat pilots rather than flew combat sorties. We were stationed stateside during the Vietnam War, so my classmates’ parents also were at little risk.
Two decades ago Birkley, my brother-in-law, enlisted in the Air Force. However, he has been tasked to keep supplies moving, not drop bombs. In practice, he’s been at greater risk from our erstwhile allies - he spent time in Saudi Arabia - than our adversaries. Thus, my family has been spared having to worry about his safety during the half-dozen small-scale invasions and wars since his enlistment.
Yet the risks of military service have never seemed too far away. I’m glad my friend of more than a quarter century is now in the Air Force reserves rather than on active duty, since he would have been in the thick of any action.
My racquetball player and Navy reservist friend has been called up, but to do intelligence work for the Defense Intelligence Agency. My across-the-street neighbor and Navy commander was nearly hit by the 9/11 attack while working at the Pentagon, but at least he’s far from Iraqi bullets.
Not so lucky, though, is my assistant pastor, an active-duty-turned-reserve Marine Corps infantry officer, called up for occupation duty in Afghanistan. At least he wasn’t racing into Baghdad, though several more months in Afghanistan might not be much better.
Three other members of my church, another Marine Corps reservist, also currently on active duty, a sailor offshore, and an Army infantryman, are in the Gulf. I don’t know them too well, but I thought of them when I saw casualty reports. And their families’ anxiety has been evident.
The sacrifices that servicemen and women and their families make during war is obvious. “Only” 147 Americans died in Gulf War I, but I met the mother-in-law of one, still grieving a year after his death. The casualty count is about the same in Gulf War II, and the effects of death will similarly linger long after the occupation of Baghdad has ended.
Less dramatic, but more persistent, are sacrifices made in peacetime. In my family we counted ourselves lucky for lasting seven years at one posting while I was in elementary and middle school. My sister’s family has not been as fortunate.
The service offers enormous responsibility: Men and women not yet able to drink, legally, at least, prepare weapons for battle, guide airplanes onto carriers, maneuver in combat, and share responsibility for countless lives around them. Such duty brings satisfaction, to be sure, but little money and little more public recognition.
Life is often boring, filled with lines, meaningless rules, and long hours. Families no less than soldiers must adapt to the vagaries of service life. Especially in the post-Cold War era, with frequent deployments, occupations, and wars, spouses and children must endure long absences and suffer through sometimes-difficult reunions.
Most incredible, perhaps, is the fact that so many men and women choose to join and remain. Like my brother-in-law, they love their country, long to serve, yearn for responsibility, enjoy the comradeship, and want to be soldiers. Those of us who have chosen other career paths owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. They deserve our thanks, support, and prayers - especially during wartime.