Military Spirit

“A republic should make only partial peace.  One must always

have some little war in reserve, to keep up the military spirit.”

-Napoleon

They were my neighbors for a year during my military service. In those days we had a draft, and a lottery that determined a young man’s chances that he would get drafted. No women were forced to serve. If your number was low and you had no political influence, you had to serve. For doctors it was different: there was a need and all of us had to go.

After I got married I rented a small townhouse six miles from the Navy base. After our first child was born we needed a reliable baby sitter. The apartment complex was teeming with military couples, and since this was the Navy, most deployments lasted six months or more. There were many military wives who had a lot of time on their hands and needed extra income.

We met Kyle and his wife when I foolishly tried to do some minor work on my car, based on directions that a friend had given over the phone. The apartment complex insisted that all work on cars, including washes, oil changes, etc. had to be done in a separate area next to the pool. On weekends there were always five or six people at a time in this space.  When Kyle noticed that I had no idea of what I was doing he offered to help. Navy life relies heavily on socializing, and even though being friendly with enlisted folk was discouraged (fraternizing, it was called), I asked him and his wife to dinner.

Kyle was 22; she was 20. They had a three-year-old daughter who also came along. He worked on engines, and was good enough at it that he had been asked to reenlist. She looked younger than her stated age, if that’s possible, but I was impressed by her patience in dealing with a very active child. By the end of the evening we decided that she would be perfect for the job.

For six months things worked out very well. Kyle received a promotion. He took over my vehicle maintenance duties. His wife did a great job with our baby. They enjoyed the relative status that being friends with an officer entailed, and neither one of them nor their child had to endure a long wait at the dispensary to see me as their doctor.

Then Kyle was notified that he was being deployed. For reasons that I found hard to understand he had never been sent out on a ship. He was 18 when he was drafted; in those days many of these young men married their high school sweethearts as soon as they received their draft notice. Even though she was only 16, her parents agreed to this union. A corollary to these unwise weddings was a pregnancy, as soon as possible, because the Navy paid the bill and these couples had little chance of getting insurance once their tour of duty was up. There were thousands of young, impressionable, immature and unprepared parents at our military bases. There was a significant burden of marital stress, substance abuse, and infidelity when the men were away. They consumed many resources.

Kyle had been lucky. They were a thousand miles away from their families, but their child was healthy and they genuinely liked each other. Once he announced that he would be leaving things began to fall apart. The daughter became unmanageable; she ran the household with an iron fist and neither parent had enough wisdom or experience to discipline her.  They ate whatever and whenever she wanted; there was no set bedtime; she was demanding and mean. Kyle’s wife developed insomnia, and soon she had frequent headaches and palpitations. Kyle was getting no sleep, and his job performance slipped. When he showed up late for work several days in a month his commanding officer had had enough. He was court- martialed. In the Navy they call it Captain’s Mast.

Kyle came to me. He had no one to speak in his favor at the trial. Maybe I could say that he had medical issues; maybe I could make them look serious…

I agreed to testify. An intimidating proposition. Military justice is very, very different from its civilian counterpart. I had an ace in the hole: the captain’s wife was my patient and she was very impressed with me. I am sure that the captain was aware of this fact: when you have to be away from home six to nine months at a time it gives you some peace of mind to know that your wife likes her doctor.

The proceeding began. Kyle’s CO detailed a long list of infractions. He had failed to tell me half of what he had done wrong. I began to lose some of my confidence. It looked like Kyle would have to spend some time in jail (the brig, in Navy parlance).

The captain asked if anyone was to testify in Kyle’s favor. I raised my hand.  He seemed surprised that a doctor had taken the time to come in. He gave me a serious but friendly look.

“Proceed.”

He’s awfully young. Younger than his age. He has a difficult child. He has been ill.

His CO jumped in.

“I can’t trust Kyle anymore.”

He is a good person. He has helped me with my car; never asks for money.  He is a good dad.

“This is all good and nice, but I need my people. I can’t have family problems interfere. Lives can be at stake. I have to prove to others that when they mess up they will be disciplined.”

Kyle’s CO looked angry.  He gave me a stern look.

They are soldiers, but they are people. These are temporary issues.  I am sure that he will be OK from now on.

Now I had done it. I stuck my foot in my mouth; I had no confidence whatsoever that Kyle would be OK, and I had managed to aggravate a fellow officer.

The captain raised his hand. In the military, many times the boss has no need to say anything. His slightest gesture is enough to bring any conversation to a halt.

He mustered the sternest look that he could. He gave Kyle a long lecture on military duty; that there would be dire consequences for a relapse. He busted him; meaning that he had been demoted one rank. There would be no time in the brig. He could return to work the next day. A Solomon-like decision: he tried to please both parties. A good captain.

Kyle was thrilled, and grateful. He did better for a while. I lost track of them after I left the base.

To draft or not to draft. Commanding officers love the volunteer army, because most of the recruits want to be there and expect the hardships associated with deployment and time away from the ones they love.

On the other hand, we have lost a precious commodity. Young people no longer see service to their country as something that has to be done. We managed to train millions of kids to serve in the military, or the Peace Corps, or in health professions. Everyone knew that they had a duty; everyone shared in the mission and the pain.

Now 10% of the population is responsible for keeping us safe. Studies show that these “ten percenters” are overwhelmingly drawn from a certain segment of society. The overwhelming majority of our population is shielded from the pain, the loneliness, the horrible injuries, and the PTSD.  The politicians can send our young people to war, to get killed and maimed, knowing that most of the people who vote won’t have any skin in the game.  The well-to-do kids won’t have to go; their influential parents will be more likely to favor war, violence, and invasions as the remedy to international disagreements. If their own children were to be the cannon fodder, they would not be as ready to attack.

Kyle would have done very well as a neighborhood mechanic. He was not a soldier. He exemplifies why the military hated the draft. In an ideal world, he would have received advanced training from the military, after which he would have been matched with a business in his home town that could use a person who was good with engines. As payment, our country would be entitled to collect a small percentage of his future earnings for a short time.

Kyle brought the war into my life. He forced me to speak out in favor of an individual. He made me realize how difficult his life, and his CO’s life, and the captain’s life, were.

We have lost that reminder.  We need to change; we must demand that everyone has to serve, in some way, at some time. We need to make sure that all young Americans understand what our dream is supposed to be.  The rich marching next to the poor; all ethnic, religious, and disenfranchised folk acting as one.

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  1. Betty Townsend

    No sure how I feel about a draft. I was so happy when my oldest son didn’t have to go, but I do see that the fat cats don’t have any skin it the game.