As the world continues to witness the courage, commitment, and resilience of the Ukrainian people, their incredible effort reminds us once again that freedom is not free, it comes at a price. As history has proven, a nation’s people must fight for their freedom, and the defense of that freedom requires a military which is well-trained, well-equipped, and well-led. Consequently, in the United States, the fight for freedom should not fall solely on the shoulders of the less than one percent of service members who wear the uniform of the U.S. Armed Forces. American businesses and individual civilians can and should play an important role in preserving our freedom. What is your role?
Service goes beyond those on the front lines of our military. As we see in Ukraine nearly every person and every organization are serving in the defense of that freedom. The conflict in Ukraine reminds us of what it must have been like for the 13 Colonies when General George Washington and the early settlers fought against a foreign country, much larger and intent on victory.
Or, during WWII when nearly every person of age and every business contributed to the fight for freedom. Millions served. In the challenging and complex world of today, how can the American people and businesses serve our country?
An example of civilian service is Francis Hesselbein who recently passed away at the age of 107. President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work with the Girl Scouts of the USA. Francis was a remarkable person, and years ago I had the opportunity to listen to her speak to a group of U.S. Army leaders. I recall her saying, “There are two institutions that have sustained our democracy since the very beginning, public education and the U.S. Army.” As our nation has grown since Washington’s time, so has the military services from the Army to the Navy to the Marine Corps, the Air Force and now Space Force. Today, both institutions, our military and public education, are under pressure and face a challenging future.
So, how do young people think about serving their country in the military? When surveying young people regarding how likely it is that they will serve in the military, less than 10 percent are inclined to serve. In addition, only 23% of young Americans qualify for military service for reasons related to education and/or aptitude (high school graduation/military aptitude test), medical, and behavior challenges. In 2022, The U.S. Army fell short of its recruiting mission by 15,000 soldiers, and as a result, the U.S. Army achieved only 45,000 of its recruiting mission of 60,000 soldiers. To put this in perspective, when I was the Commanding General of U.S. Army Recruiting Command (USAREC), 2005-2009, we had an annual active duty recruiting mission of 80,000 soldiers and we accomplished that mission for three consecutive years. The following year, the mission decreased to 65,000 and we accomplished that mission as well. Times have changed. The recruiting environment is the toughest it has been since the end of the draft and the beginning of the All-Volunteer Force nearly fifty years ago. The All-Volunteer Force has served the nation well, and it is imperative that we maintain it. Businesses can help.
Businesses can help by recognizing military veterans in their organizations, by providing employment opportunities for servicemembers transitioning from the military. Some organizations specifically focus on helping service members transition. Those who serve in our military bring to the civilian sector the essential qualities of leadership, teamwork, loyalty, work ethic, and competence. Businesses can join with organizations like American Corporate Partners (ACP) which is focused on helping veterans and spouses of the active-duty military find their next careers through networking, one-on-one mentoring, and online career advice. Businesses could work with Blue Star Families which is committed to strengthening military families by connecting them with their neighbors to create vibrant communities of mutual support. These are just two examples that highlight how businesses can help the fight for freedom.
The Army created a program that allows businesses to support soldiers through the Partnership for Your Success (PaYS) program. The PaYS program ensures soldiers receive an opportunity, at the end of their enlistment, to interview with several of the participating organizations. High school graduates with an interest in the military will realize that their service is of value not only to the military but to the civilian organizations which seek their skills and expertise. It’s a win-win.
Consider: How many veterans has your business hired and are you specifically focused on recruiting veterans? Businesses can focus on hiring veterans if the skills, attributes, and values align with their company mission. For example, one in every five employees at CSX Transportation is a veteran, serves in the military reserve forces, or is a first responder.
Fidelity Investments is one of the country’s top employers of veterans. The Postal Service employs 68,000 military veterans. Young men and women who served their country will realize that businesses value the skills they developed in the military. This is one way that businesses help protect our freedoms, however, the nation also needs individuals who are willing to serve in uniform.
While I am not a proponent of compulsory service, I believe all Americans should find a way to serve their country. As an example, that service could be with the government or through support of public education. The National Academies often have requirements for various committees that would benefit greatly from private sector experience. Some leaders like Jason Kelly, CEO of Ginkgo Bioworks, take time away from their important private sector responsibilities to serve on national commissions. Jason is the Chair of the National Security Commission on Biotechnology. Many other private sector leaders are supporting their government while still maintaining their private sector responsibilities. As a former White House Fellow, I have enjoyed mentoring White House Fellows who have taken a year off from their professions to serve in one of the best leadership development programs in the nation.
Many people volunteer to serve in our public schools, and they are making significant contributions. As discussed earlier, education and aptitude are key reasons that many of the youth do not qualify for military service. Those who volunteer to support public education are indirectly supporting our military by helping to increase the pool of youth who are academically qualified for military service. There are many ways to serve. What is your role?
The military must also review its enlistment requirements to determine how to increase the population of those who are eligible to serve. I’m reminded of a soldier named Angelo Vaccaro. Some potential recruits, like Vacarro, might not qualify for military service. As a teenager, he ran with a rough crowd in the Bronx. Angelo’s brother Ray recalled that, “My brother got into some bad stuff. Drugs, crime, hanging out with the wrong people.” Angelo wanted a better life, so he changed his behavior and was able to enlist in the Army. He became a health care specialist assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division. From that moment on, he dedicated his life and his service to saving lives.
On July 5, 2006, Vacarro rescued three wounded soldiers, carrying them one-by-one down a 7,500-foot ridgeline while under enemy fire. He shielded those soldiers with his own body even though he himself was suffering from shrapnel wounds. He had come a long way from his days as a teenager in the Bronx.
Then in 2006, the 23-year-old Angelo made the ultimate sacrifice. He was attempting to recover two-platoon mates wounded in a firefight in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan when a rocket-propelled grenade hit and killed him. Angelo didn’t have to go on that mission. He was still recovering from his injuries which he had sustained just three months earlier. His brother, Ray, credits the military with Angelo’s transformation, saying how he was changed from a lost youth to a passionate combat medic proud of helping people heal. Angelo might have started as a young man destined for a life filled with challenge, but he ended life as a hero.
In 2007, a building that housed a Warrior Transition Brigade at Walter Reed Army Medical Center was named in honor of Corporal Vaccaro. During the dedication ceremony, the Commander of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center told the assembled audience how appropriate it was to name the building after Angelo, who “overcame delinquency to become a decorated combat medic and whose actions embodied the Army values.”
The plaque on that building is inscribed, “October 3rd, 2006, Corporal Vaccaro learned that his platoon was involved in direct fire engagement with enemy forces, and he volunteered to conduct an extremely dangerous ground extraction.” At that time, Corporal Vaccaro was the only double Silver Star recipient in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. He received his first Silver Star for action in July of 2006. He received his second silver star posthumously. Corporal Vaccaro demonstrated the heroic behavior seen only in the most courageous of people. He did indeed represent the best of our soldiers.
While Corporal Vaccaro is just one example of how a youth with challenges can be transformed in our military, it is important for the U.S. Armed Forces to better assess the qualities and attributes of young people that will allow them to serve courageously and professionally despite their youthful indiscretions.
With the current challenges of the All-Volunteer Force and public education, now is the time for businesses and individuals to act. We all have a role in defending our freedom. There are many ways for businesses and individuals to serve their country. Our nation needs volunteers to serve in uniform, to support our public schools, and to support our government. However, it will take men and women in uniform to win the nation’s wars, and as George Washington wrote, “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.” American businesses can support its veterans. What is your role in preserving our freedom?