Way back in World War II, when my father was in the Army, everybody knew somebody in the military. More than half of eligible males were in uniform. During the Vietnam War, despite the exemptions to the draft, more than three million young men served in Southeast Asia. Today, however, after eleven years of war and with the end only sort of in sight, less than one percent of Americans are in the service, largely because we keep sending the same men and women back “over there” again and again and again. Our veterans have gotten very, very good at what they do, but they and their hard-stressed families are increasingly separated from mainstream America. So how do we bridge the gap?
One man, Paul Gleason, has an answer: one handwritten letter at a time. The retired history teacher, not a veteran himself, started writing soldiers in 1965 when one of his students joined the Army and has kept at it ever since: more than 10,000 letters over almost 50 years. Some go to friends he’s made — though sometimes never met — and corresponds with weekly. Since his retirement, he’s camped out at a side table in a local Burger King and cranked out about three letters a day, totaling about 15 handwritten pages. He’s currently corresponding with 10 people, from a young Marine to the widow of a decorated Green Beret who fought in Vietnam. (Click here to watch an NBC video interview with Gleasonand his young Marine Corps pen pal; click here to read a Springfield State Journal-Register profile with more details).
It’s a remarkable achievement — but Gleason is just one man. The old “any servicemember” mail programs were discontinued after the anthrax letter deaths of 2001, for fear some nutcase or terrorist would try to poison his pen pals instead of cheer them up. But there is a host of Pentagon-approved organizations through which you can send care packages. There are also some great volunteer organizations — my favorite is the National Military Family Association, NMFA — which can make good use of your donations or, better yet, your time.
To start with, though, those of us in the 99% who haven’t volunteered can make a concerted effort to better understand the 1% who serve. I’ve personally interviewed over 200 post-9/11 veterans and put many of their stories online, from men decorated for valor in Afghan firefights to vets whose toughest battle is with their own PTSD
You don’t have to limit your support to bumper stickers. As one Marine officer once told me, “You know, putting a yellow sticker on the back of your car and [saying] ‘I support your troops’ — I could care less. What I want you to do is educate yourself and vote.”