WASHINGTON — If you have military-age children who have not served in this decade’s wars, then you owe a debt — meaning money — to those who did. That’s the premise of a new fundraising effort by three wealthy American families who want to help U.S. veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Every nonmilitary family should give something, they said. The affluent should give large sums. No one should think of it as charity, but rather a moral obligation, an alternative way to serve, perhaps the price of being spared the anxiety that comes with having a loved one in a war zone.
“We have three able-bodied, wonderful, wonderful children, all of whom are devoted to doing very, very good things around social justice; and we could not be more proud of them,” said Philip Green, a local businessman who devised the fundraising idea. “We’re also delighted that none of them had to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
Green says he and his wife came to look at that as unfair: “I realized that there were parents just like me down the street, down the block … who did not have that luxury” and were suffering sleepless nights and anxiety, “which I was able to avoid.”
Green, president of health care consultancy PDG Consulting, and his wife Dr. Elizabeth Cobbs, head of geriatrics at Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington, teamed with two other couples to start the fund-raising. Together, they donated a total of $1.1 million. Contributing with Green and Cobbs were Glenn Garland, head of Texas-based CLEAResult energy consultancy, and wife, Laurie, and Jim Stimmel, CLEAResult’s executive vice president, and wife, Patty.
They hope to raise $30 million for five organizations they say are among the best at providing medical, financial and other help to veterans, active duty troops and their families. With the Fourth of July celebration approaching, they held a news conference with one of the five organizations, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
“Millions of Americans and their families have sacrificed so much in the conflicts and they have such needs,” Stimmel said. “By contrast, so many affluent Americans have not made a commensurate sacrifice; and they should.”
The issue of unequal national sacrifice has been a recurring theme during current and past conflicts and it always touches on at least two questions: Who serves in America and who doesn’t? What’s the responsibility of those who don’t?
Most people aren’t interested in joining the military. A recent Pentagon survey shows only 18 percent of American youths say they’ll definitely or probably join, very low compared to decades ago. The culture surrounding service was transformed in part by the end of conscription and mandatory service.
“Clearly, young people would prefer to be doing other things,” said Beth Asch, a senior economist at RAND Corporation who specializes in defense manpower issues.
The military also doesn’t want most Americans. It says 75 percent of the target recruit-age population of 17-24 year-olds is unqualified due to health problems (mostly related to obesity), drug or alcohol histories, or too little education (no high school diploma).
In the end, the Pentagon says it has assembled an armed force pretty much mirroring the society it defends. That is, major racial and ethnic groups make up about the same percentage of the military as they do the society at large. The same goes for income, with one exception, Asch says: “The 20 percent (of society) with the lowest income are the least likely to serve.” They’re generally unqualified due to lower education and aptitude ratings. Recruits from neighborhoods where the average household income is over $100,000 also are rare, making up roughly 3 percent of the total, studies have shown.
Asch believes that not requiring all qualified people to serve makes the system inherently unfair. That today’s force is all-volunteer takes some of the edge off of that but doesn’t speak to inequity.
The families starting the new fundraising noted their lack of service.
Stimmel and Green didn’t go to Vietnam; their sons and daughters didn’t join the military during the latest conflicts. Green was disqualified during Vietnam because of health issues. Stimmel never was called because he drew a high number in that era’s draft lottery. Garland watched older friends go and come home unappreciated and says he now has enormous appreciation for military families.
“We feel that supporting our troops is more than sticking a yellow sticker on the back of your car that says ‘Support the Troops’,” Stimmel said.
“Patty and I are challenging at least 1,000 affluent families out there to contribute 1 percent of their net worth to do their part,” he said.
Every successful business person in America “has enjoyed that success because of the sacrifice of someone else’s sons and daughters” in uniform, Garland said. The argument echoes a concern repeated often over the decade: War efforts have fallen on the shoulders of the few, while the lives of the many went largely unencumbered. Or as some troops have been fond of saying: “We went to war, America went to the mall.”
But it’s also true that there’s widespread support shown today’s troops and vets, especially compared to the vitriol heaped on those in uniform during Vietnam. Thousands of support groups now have sprung up around the nation — one study estimates there are some 40,000. They provide welcoming parties as troops arrive home at airports, free housing, telephone cards, children’s camps, employment help, airline miles, “nights out” for wives caring for their wounded husbands, counseling, cash and more.
Some long-established organizations have added new missions. The United Service Organization (USO), known for decades for sending entertainers to lighten the hearts of troops on the battlefield, focuses more now on care for the wounded. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sponsors job fairs.
What it all amounts to in giving and spending is not known.
Officials and military families fear that as more troops arrive home from the ongoing drawdown in Afghanistan, Americans will lose interest or consider the problem solved.
“The veteran space (in giving) is kind of similar to the AIDS space 35 years ago,” said Paul Rieckhoff, a former infantryman who served in Iraq and founded the IAVA. “You have an explosion of public health need that’s impacting a small percentage of the population that most Americans don’t feel.”
“And in many ways the country kind of thought that AIDS was just a problem for the gay community in the same way many Americans think that veterans (are) just a problem for the military community,” he said.
Many also assume the government will handle it — something experts in the field say isn’t possible as needs spiral in a struggling economy.
Rieckhoff said there’s a group of donors dedicated to veteran issues, but few who give six- and seven-figure sums. The new fundraising aims not only to attract large donations, but recast the giving as a moral obligation rather than an option.
“It’s not a question of, Is there money out there’,” Green said. “And it’s not a question of whether people should give the money. It’s only a question of finding them and convincing them to give it.”