I know only two men who are combat veterans. Both were navy corpsmen, working as medics for Marine Corps units in combat in Vietnam. I know fewer and fewer veterans—men who served in the military—these days. Veterans still living are only about 7 percent of the population. And only 10 percent of those veterans saw combat. That means that the percentage of Americans who have experienced combat is a tiny fraction of one percent.
The reason we have so few veterans is that the draft was abolished in 1973, and the number of men enlisting in the services dropped dramatically. That was a major change in the life of American men. Men my age are all veterans, because we were either drafted or enlisted to avoid being drafted. The vast majority of younger men, born after 1955, never served in the military.
My sense is that the end of the draft—and universal military service—has left us a less competent nation. There is no question that my three years in the army changed me dramatically. I learned that I was capable of physical, mental, and spiritual feats far beyond what I had thought were my limits. I learned to rely on myself and help others at a level I hadn’t even suspected I was capable of. And I learned, to my surprise, that I was willing to give up my life to save my combat buddy. Young men these days no longer learn those lessons. We as a nation are worse for that.
I am all but unique in that I was a civilian operating under cover as military during my time in combat. As an employee of the National Security Agency (NSA), my specialty was supporting friendly troops on the battlefield with signals intelligence, the intercept and exploitation of the radio communications of the enemy. I was able to alert U.S. soldiers and Marines and our allies with the location, size, intent, and identity of enemy forces. As far as I know, no enemy forces ever discovered that a civilian spy (me) was working against them on the battlefield. Any number of times I had close calls. During the fall of Saigon, for example, I escaped under fire.
The two men I know who combat veterans share with me a permanent scar to the soul inflicted by observing and participating in fights to the death on the battlefield. All three of us suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). But the three of us also share a pride rare among American men these days: we put our lives on the line for our country.