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The new 'Greatest Generation'- today's volunteer forces

By Army Col. Michael Forsyth | Alaskan Command | March 19, 2015

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska — I often hear it said that today's generation is nothing but slackers, concerned only about gratifying themselves.

I remember my parents' generation saying the same thing about mine, and I suspect my grandparents made similar statements about my parents' generaton.

My grandparents sprung from the so-called 'Greatest Generation,' the moniker popularized by Tom Brokaw's book chronicling the sacrifices made during World War II.

While I hold the 'Greatest Generation' in high esteem - several of my relatives served overseas in World War II - the latest generation is proving that it deserves respect and recognition for enormous sacrifices in current conflicts.

Today's service members, I believe, represent America's new 'Greatest Generation.'

Since 9/11, more than thirteen years ago, well over a million young Americans have volunteered to serve their country in a time of war.

When the war began in October 2001, resulting in the toppling of the Taliban, there were more than two million personnel serving in all components of the armed forces.
A large number of these subsequently served and sacrificed in harm's way at some point over the last thirteen years, which is very commendable.

However, all of those who volunteered to serve after 9/11 have done so with the knowledge that they will most likely deploy into combat to Iraq, Afghanistan, or both.

With this level of volunteerism in a volatile world, is it justifiable to say that this generation of Americans is any less deserving of esteem than previous generations?
The plight of today's service member is better than that of one from the 1940s.

In World War II, there were no Gor-Tex jackets for warmth, no air-conditioned barracks, and no text messaging to stay in contact with family. Once inducted into service, a young person back then would not see their family for years, in many cases.

But today's generation has its own unique set of challenges to overcome - a cycle of multiple one-year deployments; hard training between deployments; and combat in the extreme environments of Asia.

The young people who volunteer to do this are special precisely because they do so with the knowledge that such hardships are part of their immediate future.

Most of today's volunteers are under the age of 29, and they come from every demographic of American society and from all 50 states and our territories. At home they may have been high-school athletes or couch potatoes playing video games. But regardless where they came from or what they did at home, they volunteered to serve in a time of war.

The motivation might have been adventure, college money, a chance to see the world, or to do something above satisfying self.

Whatever the case, they came forward when the nation needed them and have offered themselves as a potential sacrifice to meet those needs. Volunteering in today's armed services is an act deserving of the highest order of respect.

One of these fine young people served in my battalion in Afghanistan in 2009. Sgt. Elijah J. Rao volunteered to serve in the Army in 2004. His mother told me he did this to ensure the events of 9/11 would never again occur on American soil. Rao became a field artillery meteorological crew member in a field artillery battalion and served a 15-month tour of duty in Iraq after enlisting.

Just weeks after returning in 2008, our battalion began preparations for a deployment to Afghanistan.

Training took Sergeant Rao away from his wife and child for weeks at a time as we readied for the Afghan battlefield.

The training included turning communicators, cooks, artillerymen, and meteorological crewmen into infantrymen. We deployed in June of 2009, and almost immediately engaged in firefights on multiple occasions with the Taliban.

On Dec. 5, 2009, Sgt. Rao made the ultimate sacrifice when he was killed by an improvised explosive device while patrolling with his platoon in western Nuristan Province.

This sacrifice is worthy of the greatest honor - and it has been replayed more than 6,000 times during the course of this conflict. Rao is representative of the New Greatest Generation.

Today's generation is a reflection of our society and services from generations past.
When I began my service to the nation in the 1980s, many Vietnam veterans trained and mentored me.

These men were trained by the heroes of World War II and Korea, who inculcated a sense of duty in the next generation of service members eager to emulate the liberators of Europe and the Pacific.

But the 'Greatest Generation' also had mentors - a generation of doughboys who burst onto the scene in Europe to end the tragedy of the Great War.

Before them was a generation of Civil War veterans who saved the Union in the mid-19th century. This thread of tradition, service, and sacrifice traces all the way back to the roots of our nation.

During the American Revolution, a ragtag band of young people with a desire for freedom came together to inaugurate a new nation. Their sacrifices began a long line of future generations who answered their country's call in war and performed with dignity and honor.

Today's generation is their legacy - one passed through the generations to maintain service traditions and preserve our great nation. Today's service member is a reflection, from a distant mirror, of great Americans.

This generation of American service members will pass on the precious legacy they received to yet another generation - which will, I am quite sure, be spoken ill of, denigrating their values, work ethic, and dedication.

Nevertheless, from today's service members and that future generation will come teachers, civic leaders, youth coaches, entrepreneurs, and statesmen. Inculcated with the values passed on by previous generations, they will ensure America remains the greatest nation on earth because it is a place of freedom with responsibility.

Our charter as the 'older' generation is to pass on the values and traditions - the legacy - of our forebears so they can carry America forward.

Today's young people are probably the same as all previous generations; they are immature and full of energy channeled in various directions - as we expect all young people to be. Volunteering for service to the nation is a crucible by which this, and every other, generation proves its mettle.

Today's service members have proven as worthy of praise as any from the past.

They will take the mantle of leadership and become the standard bearers of tomorrow. We must mentor them to reach their full potential for a bright future, rather than berating them for shortcomings.

If we do, then based on the example today's young men and women have demonstrated, they will earn the sobriquet America's New Greatest Generation.