U.S. Army Sgt. Elijah Rao, 2nd Battalion, 77th Field Artillery Regiment, meets with Afghan children at a school in Laghman Province, Afghanistan in 2009. Rao was killed-in-action by an improvised explosive device Dec. 5, 2009. He was part of the generation of Americans that Col. Michael Forsyth, former 2-77 Field Artillery commander, believes is America’s New Greatest Generation; a generation that has continuously volunteered for military service post 9/11 during a time of war. (U.S. Army photo/Capt. Matthew Frye)
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska —
I hear it often stated that today's generation is nothing but slackers only concerned about gratifying themselves. I remember as a younger man that my parent's generation said the same thing about my generation and I suspect that my grandparents made similar statements about my parents. My grandparents sprang from the so-called 'Greatest Generation' whose moniker was popularized by Tom Brokaw's book chronicling the sacrifices made during World War II. While I hold the 'Greatest Generation' in high esteem - which includes multiple relatives who 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 one 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 over 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 have volunteered to serve since 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 Gortex jackets for warmth, air conditioned barracks, or text messaging to stay in contact with family. Further, once inducted into service a young person from that generation would probably not see their family for years in many cases. But, today's generation has its own unique set of challenges to overcome. These include: a cycle of multiple one-year deployments; hard training between each deployment; and combat in extreme environments in Asia. The young people who volunteer to do this are certainly special 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. They come from all 50 states and our territories and at home were either former high school athletes or couch potatoes playing video games. But, regardless of where they came from or what they did at home, they volunteered to serve in a time of war. The motivation behind volunteering might have been to have an adventure, earn college money, 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 the highest order of respect.
One of these fine young people served in my battalion in Afghanistan in 2009. Sergeant Elijah J. Rao volunteered to serve in the Army in 2004. His mother told me that he did this to ensure that the events of 9/11 would never again occur on American soil. Sergeant 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. In 2008 our battalion began preparations for a deployment to Afghanistan only weeks after the unit returned from Iraq. This 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. The battalion deployed in June 2009 and within the first several weeks was engaged in firefights on multiple occasions with the Taliban. On the 5th of December 2009 Sergeant Rao made the ultimate sacrifice in keeping our nation safe when he was killed by an improvised explosive device while patrolling with his platoon in western Nuristan Province, Afghanistan. This sacrifice is worthy of the greatest honor and it has been replayed over 6,000 times during the course of this conflict. Thus, Sergeant Rao is representative of the New Greatest Generation.
Today's generation is a reflection of our society and services from generations past. I remember in the 1980s having many Vietnam veterans who trained and mentored me as I began my service to the nation. These men were in turn trained by the heroes of World War II and Korea and they inculcated a sense of duty in the next generation who wanted to emulate the liberators of Europe and the Pacific. But, the 'Greatest Generation' also had mentors who sprang from a generation of doughboys that burst on 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. Here a ragtag band of young people with a desire for freedom came together to inaugurate a new nation. With their sacrifices began a long line of future generations that answered the call in war and performed with dignity and honor. Today's generation is their legacy and that legacy has passed through each succeeding generation to maintain service traditions and preserve our great nation. Thus, 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 new generation. That generation, I am quite sure, will have ill words spoken of it denigrating their values, work ethic, and dedication just as each previous generation. Nevertheless, from today's service members and that future generation will come tomorrow's teachers, civic leaders, youth coaches, entrepreneurs, and statesmen. Inculcated with the values passed on from previous generations they will ensure that 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 - i.e. the legacy - of our forebears so that they can carry America forward.
Today's young people are probably about the same as all previous generations; they are immature and full of energy channeled in various directions as we would 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 that they are worthy of praise as much 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 any shortcomings. If we do, then based on the example of service today's young men and women have demonstrated, they will earn the sobriquet of America's New Greatest Generation.