Fixing the Gap

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. John D. Rye
  • 41st Electronic Combat Squadron commander
I read in Inc. magazine that the most productive people take breaks, are great collaborators, and have lives outside of work. I found myself thinking back to that blurb and hoping that all the squadron members with whom I work with have a life outside of work that, in fact, includes people that have nothing to do with the military.

Don't get me wrong: I also think that some level of "mandatory fun" helps build the bonds at home-station that make us a better war-fighting unit and cohesive team. But that blurb and my resulting thoughts also make me wonder how we, as leaders, can promote community involvement at the individual level.

Much has been made of the "military-civilian gap" in recent years. As the number of military members decreases, it should come as no surprise that fewer civilians personally know someone in the military.

In 2010, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, "There is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend."

In an effort to prevent this, many formal programs are in place that offer service members ways to get involved in their community and for community members to get to know the military in their midst. However, I propose that we as individuals play an important role day-to-day in closing the military-civilian gap.

I've personally noticed that many civilians want to know and be a part of someone's military life. People that travel for miles to meet the rotator and cheer as we reenter the United States, the little old lady that says "thank you for your service" at the grocery store, and the young kid that wants your autograph at the air show are all military supporters. This is encouraging since it makes getting to know civilians relatively easy.

At the same time, there is a responsibility inherent to becoming a civilian's "token military member."

As former Missouri Representative Ike Skelton once wrote, "Servicemembers should respect the civilians they volunteer to serve."

I realized this after my neighbor apologized to me some weeks ago for having failed to raise his flag for several days. I was so surprised by his apology I didn't know what to say, but my wife wondered if the guy thinks of me every time he raised and lowered that flag. That is to say when my neighbor thinks of flag and patriotism, he thinks of the one military member he knows.

That carries with it a tremendous responsibility and a respect for civilians that are doing their best to show support and respect to those in uniform.

Of course, not every American supports their military, feels gratitude, or even wants to hear stories and learn more about military life. And of course, I don't expect everyone I meet to be interested or thankful. In fact, it makes me appreciate those who do show interest and gratitude even more. It's a starting point to begin closing the military-civilian gap at the lowest level.

Additionally, it's important. With a lack of exposure to anyone in the military, it's easy to understand why there is often a lack of understanding. In addition to supporting the formal channels of community involvement for troops, we should also encourage and support military members having a life outside of work that includes relationships with civilians at the individual level.

I've also found that many civilians want to help and support our military personnel, especially during times of deployment, but don't know how best to do so.

I met a new civilian friend at a dinner prior to my deployment last year, and as he said goodbye, he told me, "If you can think of anything your troops need when you get there, my parents would love to help, but they don't have anyone to help personally."

As fewer Americans know someone in the military, they may appear to be less grateful when, in fact, they just don't know how to show gratitude - or to whom.

In return, we as Airmen and military members should feel a responsibility to demonstrate the Air Force's core values of integrity, service before self, and excellence in all we do.

The Project on the Gap Between the Military and Civilian Society and other surveys have revealed that a majority of military members think that military society has values superior to those found in society. At the same time civilian elites shudder to think that the military is a social role model.

I'm not sure how much any of us can change this perception. At the individual level, we can each be a good role model to not only our civilian friends and acquaintances but perhaps more importantly, to their children.

If anyone gives lip service to the higher standard we feel we maintain, then we certainly have a duty to maintain it. We should do so with humility. If I'm the one member of the military that some of my civilian acquaintances ever gets to know, I want to be sure to model the higher standard of which we speak.