May 27 (Bloomberg) — The Memorial Day commemoration today honors the 1.25 million Americans who have fallen for their country. It also affords an opportunity to show concern for living servicemembers, active and retired.
The picture is complex and contradictory. The U.S. military is more capable than ever, and well-provided-for despite threats of mindless across-the-board spending cuts under the so-called sequestration. At the same time, the armed forces are plagued by soaring suicide rates, rising incidents of sexual assault and worn down by multiple tours of combat duty.
Conditions for veterans are similarly mixed. The Department of Veterans Affairs’ budget has more than doubled in less than a decade; the U.S. and China are the only countries whose military budgets exceed what the U.S. alone spends on veterans. An updated version of the GI bill has sent more than a million veterans to college. Thanks to White House prodding, employment opportunities for former servicemembers are improving. Still, joblessness and homelessness are higher for veterans than the national average, and many face lengthy bureaucratic nightmares to get their military disability benefits.
“Our active military force today is remarkable; never has a force been so continuously involved for so long in combat,” says Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a Democrat who served as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division and is an influential voice on military matters. “This service has taken a toll; we see many pressures. There are other pressures on those who’ve served before.”
Most experts agree with Reed’s assessment of the current force. “There never has been in the history of the planet a military even three-quarters as good as ours,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a military affairs scholar at the Brookings Institution.
If the war in Afghanistan winds down next year, as President Barack Obama has promised, and if no new conflict arises, the military budget can be pared back, though more modestly and carefully than it would be under sequestration.
O’Hanlon, a close associate of General David Petraeus, the former Central Intelligence Agency chief, argues that the active duty Army and Marine levels can be reduced; the Navy, rather than increasing the size of its fleet, can deploy its resources more efficiently, and the Air Force only needs about half of the new F-35 joint strike fighters it has ordered.
The social problems may be thornier. The suicide rate for active-duty personnel reached a record high last year. While the Pentagon is devoting more resources to mental health, tragedies remain too common.
About 15 percent of the military are women; sexual assaults have risen, capturing the attention of both the president and Congress. In the military justice system, commanding officers have the authority to change the penalties in an assault conviction; the administration and lawmakers are seeking to change that loophole. Some want to go so far as requiring an automatic dishonorable discharge for anyone convicted of sexual assault.