Of Veterans and Volunteers

Veteran’s Day 2009 coming up November 11 and the United States economy founders on rocky shoals after decades of deregulation. It’s messy out there…and, by most accounts, the unemployed flotsam and jetsam will only increase.

According to low ball calculations, unemployment hit a 26-year-high of 9.8 percent. Associated Press reports nearly 6  million Americans volunteered for something in 2008, the largest total in the past four years. “As the economy worsens, the number of Americans trying to make a difference is going sky-high.”

Lou Reda, executive director of the HandsOn network says, “It’s absolutely stunning…It’s getting harder to put together enough projects for all the volunteers.”

Organizations with tight budgets rely on volunteers – or unpaid interns. Fundraising is the top volunteer activity followed by collecting and distributing food, general labor, and teaching. Even internships, the “in” to competitive careers for recent college graduates of a certain class are hard to come by as someone, a parent or family member, must pays the bills.

Then there’s the US military. The Pentagon accounts for more than half of U.S. discretionary spending; the US spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined. In fiscal year 2009, the regular defense budget totaled $518; tax payers are not privy to the hidden black budget. Accordingly, as the economy worsens and the pool of under- or unemployed grows, young Americans “volunteer” for the military.

Curtis Gilroy, a senior Pentagon official, said a 10 percent increase in the national unemployment rate generally translates into a 4 per cent to 6 per cent “improvement in high-quality Army enlistments.”

Bill Carr, deputy undersecretary for defense for military personnel policy, states, “We’re pleased to report that, for the first time since the advent of the all-volunteer force, all of the military components, active and reserve, met their number as well as their quality goals.” Another Pentagon spokesperson reports a “banner year for recruitment”…the military is meeting “all its goals for the first time since creating an all-volunteer force in 1973.”

The spirit of volunteerism, according to Webster’s, is to offer oneself for service of one’s own free will, to render a service or take part in a transaction while having no legal concern or interest.

But what does it mean to volunteer when few generative alternatives exist?

I met a volunteer in Sea-Tac Airport recently. Amir, a Muslim and first generation Arab-American, was heading to Ft. Worth, then Kuwait, then Afghanistan. His battle dress uniform was neat, his boots replaced after his most recent tour of duty in Baghdad. He was involuntarily extended three months beyond the one year he – and his family – expected. His fourth child was born while he was gone. This time, his wife and his ten-, eight-, and six-year-old children wish he was redeploying to Iraq. “They think I have a better shot at surviving in Baghdad since I already know how things work there.”

We agreed this is a bad time to deploy to Afghanistan. Amir said if he wasn’t married with children, if his buddies didn’t need him, he’d consider going AWOL.

I asked, “But aren’t you a volunteer?”

He laughed. “Yeah, right. What a joke. When is a volunteer not a volunteer? When he’s deployed to combat three, and four, and five times. Americans can’t get real jobs anymore. We’re forced by circumstances to sign up – or re-up – to feed our families. So much for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; I can’t afford a declaration of independence.”

Indeed, a more accurate definition of Amir’s relationship to the military is indenture: a person who binds himself to work for another for a specified time, in return for payment of travel expenses and maintenance.

Yes, the US military has young people who more accurately fit the definition of volunteer; my own son is one. He enlisted with a goal, fulfilled that goal, then discharged to earn the formal college education that he was unable to earn as a volunteer (despite his recruiter’s promises that he would attend college while in the military). But hundreds of thousands of Amirs in the military indenture themselves to keep families afloat. More than 6,000 American volunteers are dead and tens of thousands have lost limbs or suffered brain injury.

Surely if risking one’s life for one’s country is the noble cause George Bush promoted – and Barak Obama echoes – recruiting volunteers would be a cakewalk? Yet the military spends, on average, between $9,000 and $10,000 per recruit including the cost of advertising and employing thousands of recruiters across the country. The US Army spends about $22,000 per recruit.

This Veteran’s Day remember that President Eisenhower signed the 1954 bill as a call to We, the People to dedicate ourselves to peace.

This Veterans Day look into a veteran’s face, shake his or her hand, sincerely ask about, and deeply listen to, stories from the combat zones.

Then ask yourself, isn’t it time to ensure that none of our people bare the burden of false volunteerism? Isn’t it time you, and I, and our nation reexamine our priorities, dedicate ourselves to people over profit, and ensure a truly secure future?

SUSAN GALLEYMORE is author of Long Time Passing: Mothers Speak about War and Terror, host of Stanford University’s Raising Sand Radio, and a former “military mom” and GI Rights Counselor.

SUSAN GALLEYMORE is author of Long Time Passing: Mothers Speak about War and Terror, host of Stanford University’s Raising Sand Radio, and a former “military mom” and GI Rights Counselor. Contact her at media@mothersspeakaboutwarandterror.org.