A Death in the Family

There was a death in the family on March 18 when a mortar unexpectedly exploded during a live-fire military training exercise at Hawthorne Army Depot in Nevada. In fact, there were seven deaths. Not in my immediate family. But rather, in the United States Marine Corps family of which my wife and I have been a part since our youngest son enlisted in the Corps fresh out of high school in 2010. And yet the loss feels immediate.

It feels immediate because the seven young Marines who died - most in their early twenties and one just 19 years old - were our son's "brothers" - close friends and comrades with whom he had deployed overseas, shared in the deprivations and adrenaline of military life, drunk too much beer, and trained in the most unforgiving conditions and terrain. It feels immediate because during the last three years - including a harrowing seven-month deployment to Afghanistan -- we have come to know the parents of other Marines in our son's battalion - in-person at a wrenching deployment send-off and joyous welcome-home ceremony, in phone calls desperate for any tidbit of information to confirm or refute the latest rumor from a deployment overseas, and via the wonders of Facebook. It feels immediate because, for the second time, our own Marine was lucky to avoid death or serious injury.

This extraordinary bond between Marines and among Marine families - duplicated among service members in the Army, Navy, and Air Force and their families -- is in sharp, painful contrast to the lack of connection most Americans have to the war in Afghanistan and the men and women serving there. In an era when universal conscription no longer exists and less than 1% of Americans serve in the military, practically no one has "skin in the game" anymore, and a chasm of experience and understanding now divides our society.

Although we had the support of relatives, friends, and neighbors, at no time did my wife and I feel more alone and disconnected from society at large than during our son's deployment to Afghanistan - when most of the world with which we had daily contact seemed oblivious to the fact that Americans were still at war, and in harm's way, overseas. It was an alienating and often infuriating experience - undoubtedly shared by military families throughout the country. I can recall instances where people have expressed surprise that Marines (or other service members) are still fighting in Afghanistan, or worse - express bewilderment that anyone would choose to don a uniform and put themselves at risk on behalf of their country. Like attitudes toward migrant farm workers, there is a sentiment among many in the United States that serving in the military today is "someone else's job."

There are, to be sure, encouraging glimmers that more Americans may be "getting it" and recognizing the sacrifices made by service members and their families: the advent and growth of organizations like the Wounded Warrior Fund and the Semper Fi Fund; public support for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, most recently in its lobbying campaign to call attention to egregious failures by the Department of Veterans Affairs to process health and disability claims by service members; and the outpouring of love and support in local communities around the country that experience the loss of one of their own.

The challenge now is to instill within our society a deeper, sustainable recognition of the true costs of war and the price of service - and to promote a genuine feeling and broader community of shared sacrifice. We, all of us, owe nothing less to the millions of service members and their families who have paid that price and stand ready to answer their country's next call to arms.