In the year that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a total of 181,510 Americans signed up to join an active-duty branch of the United States military. That's the highest number of enlistments over the past 20 years, according to a piece in the American military newspaper Stars and Stripes published on Sept. 10.
Some of them went to Afghanistan or Iraq, others served on deployments to other corners of the globe, and others served stateside to protect our nation from any threats that might come from within. Their exact reasons for enlistment varied. Some did it purely out patriotic feelings that had been stoked by watching their country come under attack, others joined the military for more economic reasons, or for the purpose of qualifying for college scholarships under the G.I. Bill. There were likely those who were already contemplating military service before the terrorist attacks, but had their decision to join up cemented at a time of great uncertainty for themselves and for their nation.
"Studies show that starting in 2002, Army recruits scored higher on qualification tests, had high school diplomas more often and came from higher-income areas than in previous years — indications that military service was attracting a broader cross-section of Americans, experts say," a New York Times piece on post-9/11 enlistment from Sept. 6, 2011, reads.
Enlistments have tapered off in the two decades that followed 9/11.
A total of 2,218 members of the U.S. military died in the war in Afghanistan. Another 4,497 were killed in the Iraq War. Interventions in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have claimed 76 American service members’ lives.
More than 50,000 U.S. military members were wounded serving in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, according to the U.S. military’s official reports. It’s impossible to count how many more escaped war without any physical injuries, but are carrying mental wounds with them each day.
We can't make them talk about it. We can't make them tell their stories, nor should we. They should publicly share what they see fit, just as they should be given the time and the space to process and internalize the events that occurred in their military careers. Speaking solely from experience as someone who has dealt with traumatic events, it's important that we as a nation go the extra mile and then some to offer help to those veterans who need it.
There can't be a one-size-fits-all approach to mental health disorders, which is a stark contrast to veterans returning to civilian life after growing accustomed to doing everything as expected by their branch of the military. A multi-pronged approach to making counselors, crisis lines, group therapy and other mental health interventions available to those who served is absolutely necessary.
While I think we in today’s America are much more understanding and appreciative of our veterans than we have been in decades past, I do think we run the risk of forgetting exactly how much sacrifice and what types of burdens come with serving in modern conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
I think some of us have forgotten that conflicts around the globe are still happening, and that Americans are still putting themselves in harm’s way to help the people of those countries. That’s the essence of service—to sacrifice so much of yourself for an unknown outcome, with the main desire being to help other people.
Just because they have sacrificed willingly does not mean they deserve to be forgotten or neglected.
Sometimes military members volunteer with one idea of service in mind, and get something completely different. They don't get to choose the orders they accept or decline from their commanding officers. They go where they are told to go, and they carry out their missions as assigned.
Military service is becoming an increasingly difficult challenge. That’s why I’m thankful to the people who volunteer for it and for those who make it their life, so that the rest of us may enjoy our freedom.