Visiting five military installations in three Western states in just five days was an inspiring, informative and exhausting experience.
I was part of a group of 38 people taking part in the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference (JCOC), a program sponsored by the Secretary of Defense for civilian public opinion leaders interested in learning more about the military and national defense issues.
We met with people ranging from experienced generals and admirals to young sailors, airmen, Marines, soldiers and Coast Guard staff in their late teens and early 20s. And we learned about their mission, their dedication and their family struggles.
Over five days, our group experienced a few challenging hours of Marine Corps boot camp, went out on a Navy ship, flew on a C-17 military transport and saw our Air Force fighter capabilities, saw a live-fire Army field demonstration and learned about the work of the Coast Guard on a small boat in the Seattle harbor.
And while those experiences were interesting – and certainly different from the desk I usually occupy – the lasting memories are the people, not the activities.
Less than 1 percent of the people in the United States serve in the military, and the feeling expressed to us in base after base – and through a range of ranks – is that the other 99 percent doesn’t know what they do or understand their challenges.
There is no question that these members of the military are proud of their work defending our country, but they – and their families – are feeling the strain of multiple deployments that tear families apart for long periods and then have them try to get used to being together again. Add to that the stress of the wars on those who serve, as the nation has seen an increase in suicides among people in the military.
The American Red Cross is well-recognized among people in the military because of our emergency communications work that gets word about severe illnesses, births or family deaths to people who are serving in the military.
One of the things that I took away from our trip was the need for the Red Cross to do more to spread the word about our Coping with Deployments courses and our Reconnection Workshops that give assistance to those who are facing some challenges after returning from a deployment. Help is available, and we all should do more to make sure that those who need it know where to find it. This could include individuals sharing information about Red Cross services to families in the military or the Red Cross promoting these programs at military installations as well as to National Guard and Reserve units.
Our tour ended late Friday night at Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington DC. As our group exited the C-17 to board our bus to the hotel, we saw another C-17 nearby on the tarmac. This one carried members of the military who were coming home from Germany. We could see some walking off the plane, while others on stretchers or hospital beds were being taken off the plane and were on their way to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment.
It was a vivid reminder of the difference between our tour and the reality of those who serve and sacrifice every day for our country.