There’s a missive going around about how a “veteran” is someone who “gave a blank check” to America. While this may sound good, it’s simply not true. The fact is, young men who serve in the military are not “offering” anything, they are fulfilling a military obligation established by Federal regulation. Title 10 defines the militia as “all able-bodied males at least 17 years of age and, except as provided in section 313 of title 32, under 45 years of age who are, or who have made a declaration of intention to become, citizens of the United States.” This has been the definition of the militia ever since the United States became a nation. (the Code has recently been modified to include female members of the National Guard.) Until 1973, when conscription ended due to a number of legal rulings, particularly one in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, ALL young American men were subject to eight years of military service, which could be served in various ways ranging from two years of active service followed by six years in the reserves to four to six years of active service followed by reserve service. It was the policy in force when I graduated from high school in 1963 and was faced with the choice of how I was going to fulfil my military commitment. After considerable deliberation, I decided to enlist in the US Air Force.
If I had any thoughts of patriotism or somehow servicing my fellow Americans, they were so far in the back of my mind I never thought of them. I had a number of reasons for choosing the Air Force – my dad was in the Air Corps during the war and my uncle was an Air Force pilot, I liked airplanes and wanted to fly – but I enlisted like most other young men because I was obligated by law to do so unless I wanted to wait and take my chances with the military draft. Since I was unmarried – although they were classified as 1A, married men were lower on the list of potential draftees – I only had three options, enlist, enroll in college and receive a deferment or wait to be drafted. I thought about college – and was accepted at both the University of Tennessee and Memphis State (but didn’t know how I’d pay for it) – but decided to enlist and attend college later. (I also had the option of taking college classes in my off duty hours but my duties precluded it.)
Those who have never served in the military – and some who have – seem to think that those who go into it are somehow making a sacrifice. While this may be true of older men who had established themselves in some kind of job, it’s not true of most military enlistees. (Yes, there is the potential for making the ultimate sacrifice but only a tiny fraction of those who serve die in the line of duty. I’m referring to somehow sacrificing something to go into the service in the first place.) It is true that military service may mean separation from family but there are numerous civilian professions in which men must work in remote areas far from their families. Granted, it’s their choice but since 1973 and the end of conscription, military service is also a choice. As for compensation, although my initial pay as a recruit was only $83.20 a month, that was $83.20 more a month than I was making as a high school student. I was also provided a place to lay my head and three meals a day, as well as free medical care had I needed it. By the time I left the Air Force 12 years later, my total compensation as an E 6 on flying status with a wife and daughter was equal to or better than that of most American men my age. In fact, when I left the service, I took a substantial cut in pay and it took several years before I was back to the level I was when I left military life. I also gave up lifetime retirement pay of half of my military salary and free medical care for life had I elected to remain another eight years. I recently compared my compensation at the time I left the service in 1975 with that of a young man or woman with the same amount of service doing the same job as me and found that their total pay was as much as I was making when I took early retirement from a major corporation in 2000 – and I was in a white collar job!
Yes, I got to play in the Great Southeast Asian Games but there was no sacrifice involved for me or anyone else. Even those who died who came in as draftee or had yet to complete their military obligation were doing their duty as citizens. Career men and women who were there were there by choice. They could have left the service at the end of their enlistment or when they had filled the obligation they had for specialized training such as military pilot training. Not to mention that we were compensated for our service, which raises another point. Besides, it was an adventure and I didn’t have to pay a nickel for it. (I was paid!)
There was one campaign issue used by Donald Trump with which I was not in tune, the claim that veterans are “not being cared for.” This is patently untrue. If a man or woman suffers injury or disease while they are on active military service that leaves them disabled, they not only entitled to medical care at government expense, they are also entitled to compensation of varying amounts, depending on the level of disability. (Military retirees can now receive BOTH their military retirement and disability compensation.) That young men and women who suffer injury in one of our recent and current military adventures are left to fend for themselves is simply untrue. In fact, all military veterans are theoretically eligible for medical treatment in the VA system, but there is a priority system with those with service-connected disabilities in the highest priorities. (I know – I am 60% disabled.) The cases that so often receive major coverage in the media are veterans who are in low priority, many of whom have no service-connected disability and are unable to prove their claims. The truth is that the majority of veterans don’t need VA treatment because (1) they are healthy and (2) they have insurance coverage through their employers. (Retirees have their own health care program.) I myself only started using the VA for medical treatment when my service-connected disability began causing problems requiring medical care. Before that, I used civilian medical facilities and my former employer-sponsored insurance coverage.
Just where this “blank check” idea came from, I don’t know. I suspect it came from one of the veteran’s organizations but if so, there doesn’t seem to be any indication of it. Regardless, the slogan is not true. Those of us who served in the military did not “give” the United States of America anything. In fact, by serving we were paying the debt that all American men incur the instant they are born, or in the case of immigrants, the moment they become a citizen. There is a blank check all right but it’s the one we’re all given, and I mean ALL, by citizenship in a free country.