Exploring the citizen-soldier disconnect at the inaugural Yale Veterans Summit

When Chris Harnisch was on a plane home after a 14-month deployment in Afghanistan, the flight attendant, noticing his uniform, asked where he was coming from. When he told her, the surprised attendant said, “We still have troops in Afghanistan?”

It was an innocent question, Harnisch told the audience gathered for the inaugural Yale Veterans Summit, but it showed him for the first time “the magnitude and ubiquity of the civilian-military divide.”

Believed to be the first event of its kind in the Ivy League, the Yale Veterans Summit, held April 10–11 on campus, brought together Yale alumni from every branch of the armed forces, both those on active duty and veterans, as well as representatives from the government, academia, and the non-profit and private sectors. The conference was the brainchild of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Faint ’13 M.A., now a teacher at West Point, who brought  a group of cadets from the academy to the summit.

The theme of the summit was “Bridging the Divide: The Way Forward in U.S. Civil-Military Relations.” This disconnect between members of the armed services and the people they are sworn to protect “is about more than what the average American knows about how many troops we still have in Afghanistan,” said Harnisch, now a student at Yale’s School of Management and Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, and president of the Yale Student Veterans Council, a co-sponsor of the summit. “[It] is among the most important national societal issues of our day, as trust and effective cooperation between our civilian leadership and our military is absolutely crucial to the preservation of our democratic republic.”

“At a time when only 7% of the nation’s population has ever worn a military uniform and only 1% has ever gone to war, it is easy for the gap to flourish,” Harnisch said, noting that 84% of veterans feel that average Americans do not understand the challenges they face, while 74% of civilians agree that they do not understand those challenges.

This “knowledge gap,” said keynote speaker Deborah Lee James, U.S. secretary of the Air Force,  is the result of “insufficient interaction … insufficient partnerships … and insufficient dialogue.” And this gap exists in three key areas, she said: between the military and the population at large, “within our own ranks,” and between Congress and the military.

Some have argued that the public has not held the military appropriately accountable for “breaches of trust,” such as “toxic leadership,” issues of sexual assault, and waste in military spending, said James. Others contend that the public doesn’t understand or value “the sacrifices that our men and women in uniform have made.”

James contended that the “knowledge gap” between ordinary civilians and those in the service does not stem from a lack of trust or appreciation. After 14 years of “perpetual war” most Americans “trust and admire an institution they don’t really understand,” she said, pointing out that most people don’t even know someone who has served in the military. She attributed this to the facts that only small percentage of the population has ever been on active duty, that the tradition of service often stays within families (8 of 10 veterans have at least one relative in the military, she noted), and that as the so-called “greatest generation” passes away, memories of a time when everyone was expected to participate in military service are also fading.

Members of the military also contribute to the civilian-service disconnect, James told the audience. All too frequently, she said, military families are “cloistered … living on military bases, where there are bars and gates between us and the public” and many soldiers socialize only with other service members.

 “How many of us understand what it’s like to be in the civilian job market? What it’s like to be laid off with only two weeks’ notice from your employer? Or what’s happening with access to health care? Or understand wage stagnation?” said James. “My point is that we have a lot to learn about one another.”

Promoting interaction between soldiers and civilians by encouraging them to work, worship, and play together is key to making the military seem less distant to average citizens, she said, and that, in turn, is important to “attracting the next generation of military personnel.”

It is also essential for the military to close the knowledge gap within its own ranks, she asserted. Even within the Air Force, there are different groups with different missions — each with its own distinct lingo and culture — and this is also true of “our sister services,” she said. “Believe me, when you get out in the field, even though there may be differences, our troops always work it out. … But back at headquarters, in places like the Pentagon, where I hang my hat every morning, when we begin debating issues about money and authority and policies, the gaps begin to grow; they widen.” Furthermore, while the nation gains great strength from its international allies, it is also a great challenge to bridge the disparities with these partners in terms of equipment, doctrine, culture, and language, she said.

“These are not just annoying gaps; these are gaps within our own departments and with our partners that can create very serious war-fighting gaps,” she said. The key to bridging this divide, she suggested, is building “closeness and camaraderie” through joint training and joint operations, while also promoting coordination within the Pentagon, across departments, and with the nation’s international partners.

Because it is the civilians on Capitol Hill who ultimately control the military, determining its budget and authorizing combat, it is especially critical to close the knowledge gap between Congress and the Armed Forces, James told the audience.

When she and her military counterpart, General Mark A. Welsh III, chief of staff for the Air Force, testified before the congressional committees on defense recently about the effects of sequestration, she noted, “We flat-out told Congress that if we don’t get the key resources in the President’s budget at roughly the levels we are asking for, and we have to ultimately live with the much lower levels of sequestration, that we will not be able to [carry out the nation’s] defense strategy — period. … That we could not be able to do what we are today.”

The nation’s defense strategy, she later explained, calls for the U.S. military to have the capability to wage war in two areas of the world simultaneously, while continuing to defend the homeland.

“Where we run into difficulties, deep difficulties, is not so much with these core committees,” said James, “it is with the rest of Congress. That is where we have the greatest gap.” While the defense budget is a high priority for those representing areas with military bases, many legislators are focused on other issues of national import. “I’m predicting a long, hot summer in Washington … and a lot more months of high-stake negotiations,” she noted.

While there is no “silver bullet” solution to closing the knowledge gap with Congress, said James, it is clear that representatives of the Air Force and other armed services need to spend more time in Congress “upping our game in public relations” and building relationships. “We need to talk in plain English” and show members of Congress “that we appreciate that we are the stewards of taxpayers’ dollars,” she asserted, adding that Congress, in turn, needs to understand how budget cuts will affect the U.S. defense strategy — one possible implication being that the United States might have to switch from being a global military power to a regional one, she noted.

Other speakers at the conference included Eric B. Maddox, recipient of the National Intelligence Medal of Achievement among other honors for his role in the capture of Saddam Hussein, who spoke about how the communications divide between the CIA and the military almost scuttled that mission; Tom Opladen ’66, president of the Yale Veterans Association, who expressed his hope that “we find a good way forward for the nation, for Yale, and for our veterans”; and Yale President Peter Salovey, who in his former role as the university’s provost was instrumental in bringing ROTC back to campus. Today, Salovey told the audience, the ROTC students and Yale’s student veterans “are part of the life-blood of this university.”