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Millennials, in Uniform or Not, Come of Age in the 9/11 Decade

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WTC rebuilding

NY Times – “Raise your hand if you know someone serving in the military,” my political anthropology professor asked one day during a senior seminar. I looked around the room and saw a few scattered hands in the air, then down at my own, firmly planted in my lap. It was the fall of 2007, and the United States military had been engaged in two theaters of war for the better part of a decade. I was about to graduate with a degree in global security, and I could not think of a single person I knew who was serving — nor had the thought even crossed my mind until the question was posed so directly. While public service was featured prominently in my schools and community growing up, and certainly among my peers in college, the thought of service was always relegated to the civilian sphere — Peace Corps, Teach for America, infrastructure projects in South America. Military service, though not portrayed in a negative way, was simply absent from discussions of post-graduation endeavors.

This framework was significantly altered when I arrived in Washington to start my first job. My office? The Pentagon, where suddenly I was swimming in a sea of varying shades of green and tan camouflage, trying to decipher between silver bars, golden oak leaves, embroidered chevrons and a host of other markings that signify military rank. Five years later, I can say with pride that I know quite a lot of people serving in the military, and here is what I have learned.

1. No one soldier, Marine, sailor, coast guardsman or airman is the same. Nor are their motivations for choosing to serve. (And while we’re at it, not all military members are called “soldiers.”) Servicemen and servicewomen hail from all corners of the country and all religions, socioeconomic classes, education levels and political creeds.

2. Service members do not all share the same experiences. Nor do they interpret or react the same way to similar events. Not all combat veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder, nor do all veterans even engage in combat. (And why do we rarely hear about the civilians who are deployed to war zones and might be just as likely to be affected by unsettling events?)

3. There is a gaping divide in understanding between the less than 1 percent of Americans who serve in the military (and their families) and the civilian population, much of which does not have a personal connection to those currently serving. This divide is particularly hazardous for the millennial generation, whose members will eventually become the next generation of policy leaders, and in so doing will be faced with the challenge of recognizing the value of diverse perspectives.

We as millennials are the most connected generation in history, thanks to the ever-increasing proliferation of information technology and social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and e-mail. Yet despite the ease with which we can communicate with individuals anywhere in the world, on any given topic, we often tend to follow blogs or figures on Twitter who reinforce our own opinions. As a result, we risk becoming more detached, more “siloed” in our thinking and worldviews. After interviewing nearly 75 veterans and current service members, I’ve realized that many of their reasons for serving – the desire to be a part of something greater than themselves, the fear of looking back on this critical moment in our country’s history and not taking the risk to lead – are convictions that I share, and that are shared by millennials worldwide. But in an age when public understanding defaults to media snapshots of static events, we cannot truly know and understand our peers in and out of uniform without a willing dialogue.

Any exchange must work both ways, and the onus is on all of us. While I am always surprised to see my civilian peers dismissing firsthand military experience as being “too close to the issue,” many times those in uniform presume inexperience of civilians who have not been “on the ground.” But when I hear the same stories and the same issues being raised by a civilian at U.S.A.I.D. and an Army platoon leader who both worked on war zone reconstruction projects, it seems that there are universal principles that apply to service of many kinds.

The fact is, we have much more in common than we ever stop to think about. As a generation that predominantly grew up in the wake of 9/11, we all – from the Army Ranger to the Peace Corps volunteer to the college student – have a story about where we were and how we were affected by the events that day. In the decade since, many have set out to accomplish great acts of service, all over the country and around the world; to be a part of something greater than ourselves, whether as a result of 9/11 or a different call to serve. Until we work to bypass our preconceived notions toward people and groups about whom we know very little, we will continue to lose out on a critical opportunity to connect with one another and find common ground.

So, fellow millennials: Take a moment to think about what service means to you. Eleven years ago, the events of 9/11 shook the world in which we would come of age. We all remember watching the news coverage that morning, trying to make sense of what had happened — and wondering what we could do to engage in some small way. Some of us volunteered to clear the wreckage in New York and Pennsylvania; some raised money for families who had lost a loved one during the attacks; some enlisted or commissioned into the military to protect our security around the globe; some founded organizations to aid Iraqi child amputees; others started organizations to aid American military amputees. Think about all of our individual and collective stories of service, and about those whose stories we have yet to hear. Five years ago in that classroom, I had barely scratched the surface. If you were asked the question today, would you raise your hand?

Source: New York Times: At War, September 10, 2012, by Julia L. Stern

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