The government gives us plenty of reasons to complain — see the 113th Congress. Taxes are high, there aren’t enough jobs and at the rate tuition is rising, our debts are going to take lifetimes to pay off. The future looks bright, right?
Yet, if there’s one thing that can be agreed upon, it’s that our most basic rights are rarely infringed upon. Sure, the gun control and abortion debates loom, but for the most part, we can do what we want when we want. In many respects, it wouldn’t be far off to say that many of us take our freedom for granted — myself included.
This year — for the first time — I started to consider the privilege of living under these circumstances. My roommate, Josh, was from Korea — yes, he knew who PSY was before Gangnam Style — and he had been trying to decide whether to return to the University in the fall or embark on his mandatory two-year military service and return in 2015. Also, two of my friends decided to voluntarily serve in the Israel Defense Forces instead of coming to school in the U.S.
As an outsider to the idea of mandatory military service — also known as conscription— the thought of delaying my education and potentially being deployed is frightening. By no means am I emotionally stable enough to live thousands of miles away from my friends and family. Heck, that’s why I chose a school 45 minutes from my house.
But Josh sees it differently. “I never really thought about (serving) because if you’re born in Korea as a guy, you have to do it,” he told me in a conversation before leaving. “I knew (I had to serve) since I was a young kid, so it didn’t really affect my life.”
It also became evident while talking to him how much of a culture difference exists between countries that have mandatory service and those that don’t. “When I lived in Korea, I never realized it was such a big deal. But when I came here and talked to people about it, they freaked out.”
Why is it that most Americans fear serving in the military and that even though the U.S. was engaged in two wars for over a decade, the idea is still so foreign to them? According to a study by Pew Research, only half of a percent of the U.S. population has served since the beginning of the Afghanistan war. This has contributed to a growing military-civilian gap with discrepancies between how the general public and veterans view today’s societal issues. Because so few people know others who have served, the experience is unimaginable.
In February, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D– NY) introduced a bill that would require mandatory military service for all Americans. I’ve always joked with my family that if this were ever to happen, I would run away to Canada since the military is something I definitely don’t want to deal with, especially during my college years.
However, Josh gave me a new perspective on how meaningful serving in the military can be — likening the experience to taking a gap year that many students take before undergraduate or graduate school. “I kind of want to go (to the military) because I think I need a break from studying and academics. I think it would be a good opportunity to reflect on my life.”
Right now, it appears that Americans have nothing to fear in regard to a draft. With the two wars seemingly winding down, there shouldn’t be a need for more troops. Nonetheless, the conversations I’ve had recently with Josh and others have made me reconsider the value of the brave men and women who do choose to serve in the military. Their service has allowed me to be free without worrying about being free.
As more veterans return home in the near future, I’ve come to realize it’s our duty to acclimate them back into normal civilian life. Considering the time and energy they spent serving, it’s the least we can do.
Derek Wolfe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.