But, one might say, Iraq is over, Afghanistan winding down. Problem solved, right?
Wrong, because for the active duty military and their families, war -- or war-like readiness -- is going to continue as a way of life. There's no peace dividend for military families. It's something the civilian society should be aware of, because as government resources dwindle, we'll need support to help us continue to cope.
Cope with what? Set aside the very pertinent fact that we still have 68,000 troops in Afghanistan. The U.S. military is forward-deployed, away from family, throughout Africa, in the Balkans and Black Sea, around the Middle East, in South America, on ships in the Pacific, around the straights of Malaca, in Korea. We send and will continue to send thousands of service members to Japan on two-year orders away from their families. We will add new deployments to places like Australia.
To many military planners, the world is no less dangerous now than it has been -- it is perhaps even more dangerous. The Army is planning to move to a faster, cheaper rotational force, increasing "responsiveness and mobility" according to Army plans and policy. This means some Army families used to being together in garrison for two to three years in the United States will now live more like the Marine Corps, with their service member leaving them for six months or more at a time for "peacetime deployments" as part of the new way of doing business.
Here's how Secretary Panetta describes the post-Iraq-and-Afghanistan missions of this "smaller, leaner" force: they will counter terrorism and irregular warfare, deter and defeat aggression, project power despite external challenges, counter weapons of mass destruction, defend the homeland, provide a stabilizing presence throughout key areas of the globe, conduct stability and counterinsurgency operations, and conduct humanitarian, disaster relief, and other operations.
Suffice it to say, our military will be busy. The families will continue to feel that they are at war -- but they will not have the same level of public backing that they have been able to rely on. As much of a strain as the hot wars were, they had in their way become predictable. Most families had long notice before their loved ones left, and they left in large units with significant support, including family readiness officers. The new force will be smaller, the separations will be less predictable, and there will be less support. Paychecks will be smaller since combat-zone tax-free pay and extra combat pay will go away; and the declining budget means fewer military-sponsored family programs. Plus, American society writ large will think that the war is over, the troops have come home.
Why should Americans care? Because families remain a key partner in the health and stability of our military. Our military understands that family strength is a component of readiness, because if military life is too hard on families, we can no longer retain our force. Moreover, when the troops are in distress, families are a key line of defense. Finally, the country should care because in the end the military and the families serve the nation, not the Pentagon. We've had unprecedented support in recent years during the wars. And we still need it. If the media and Washington gave a fraction of the attention to this issue as they have to David Petraeus, we could perhaps mobilize a response to this coming challenge. And that could make a difference to our families, to our military, even to our national security.