Jerry Alexander was a Sacramento teenager – the son, nephew and brother of military veterans – when he decided to enlist in the Army rather than wait to be drafted. It was the spring of 1967, a few months before his 18th birthday. He knew he was likely to be sent to fight in Vietnam.
“But you’re young, and you want to look for adventure,” said Alexander, now 65 and an officer with Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 500 in the Sacramento Valley. “And I come from a patriotic family.”
Almost half a century later, Alexander is disabled, partly as a result of the toxic mists of napalm that rained down on him so long ago in the jungles of Vietnam. Despite his maladies, despite the memories of mistreatment from an alienated American public when he returned home, he’s proud of serving his country.
“I felt it was my obligation to serve,” he said. “It was my obligation for being raised here.”
Experts say that sense of responsibility toward the country has faded in the four decades since conscription ended and the all-volunteer military was instituted. On Memorial Day, as America pays tribute to the military members who gave their lives in wars both long ago and recent, the gap between those who serve and those who don’t seems wider than ever.
Partly, it’s a generation gap: The younger you are, the less likely you are to have participated in military service, or even be closely related to someone who was called on to serve.
According to the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of Americans have an immediate family member who was in the military – but only one-third of them are below age 30.
Military service was for decades a common bond among American men, and military families were commonplace. In 1970, U.S. Census figures show, roughly half of the Sacramento region’s civilian male adults had served in the military. That share had dropped to one in six by 2012.
Today, only 4 percent of Sacramento men aged 18 to 40 are veterans, compared with 54 percent of men 65 and older. Serving wasn’t an option widely available to women until after the draft ended in 1973.
Similarly, across the country, only 13 percent of adults – and almost one-quarter of men – are veterans. Among American men in their late 20s, who came of service age in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks, only 12 percent have served.
“There seems to be a total lack of public awareness of the sacrifices that previous generations have made and those that have been made these past 12 years,” said Linda Smith, 66, of Woodland. She helps run Yolo Military Families, which provides support for service members’ parents and spouses. Her son, Jason Smith, now 34, served two tours in Iraq.
“People aren’t connecting,” she said. “They’re detached.”
Beyond the generational shifts, several decades’ worth of military base closures across the country, including all three of Sacramento’s installations, have reduced the public’s day-to-day acquaintance with service people and military retirees.
And the raw number of service people is lower: Technology allows the United States to maintain the world’s most dominant and skilled military with far fewer people. About 16 million military personnel served in World War II; by comparison, there are 1.5 million Americans in uniform today.
Those who do serve in today’s all-volunteer military tend to come from military families, with the profession handed down from one generation to the next: Roughly 80 percent of young veterans have an immediate family member who served, according to Pew.
As a result, most American families simply aren’t invested in the armed forces through ties of blood. That wasn’t always the case.
At 88, Francis Resta is a retired engineer and World War II veteran who as an 18-year-old kid fought across Germany, one bloody battle after another. He saw the devastation of war: the deaths on both sides of the lines, the destruction of countryside and villages, the rubble of war littering the landscape.
“It was terrible,” he said. “America never had to deal with this. Americans just don’t know. We insulated the country. We went overseas and kept the war from coming to America.”
But he wouldn’t have dreamed of not volunteering to serve.
“Everybody was going in,” he said. “We’d been attacked. The whole country was involved.”
The public tends to look back on that era as one of strong national purpose, a golden age of patriotism. The World War II military draft turned a generation of ordinary farm boys and factory kids into soldiers willing to die for their country: One way or another, on the home front or overseas, almost everybody felt a duty to give.
But experts think it was the World War II era, not today, that represents the historical anomaly.
“The period from World War II into the 1960s was a somewhat unique period in American history,” said Paul Glastris, the editor in chief at Washington Monthly and a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, who has written about the need to reinstate national service.
“Because of the tremendous shock of Pearl Harbor and the world historic effort to fight tyranny, we formed a culture where everybody was expected to give a little more and identify with the national project. It was a high standard.
“That wasn’t as true before that time, and it hasn’t been true since.”
Research shows that three-quarters of the American public opposes a military draft, but Glastris and other advocates propose framing conscription instead as a national service system. Some young people could serve in the military, he suggests, while some could serve as stateside security forces – and all of them could earn educational benefits in return for their service.
“Government has a responsibility to provide opportunities to every American, and Americans have a responsibility to give something back to the country that made those opportunities available,” Glastris said.
“That’s the spirit in which you want to make the case that service should be the universal rite of passage.”
Tom Webb served in the Navy in the late 1950s. And during his career in electronics, he regularly traveled to countries with mandatory service requirements, such as Israel and Switzerland. Now 78 and retired, Webb said he noticed a different attitude in those countries: the shared ground of common purpose.
“Young people’s attitude wasn’t, ‘You owe me,’” said Webb, who lives in Sun City Lincoln Hills. “It was, ‘I’m contributing to my country.’ They wanted to make things better.”
More than nine of 10 Americans say they take pride in those who serve, Pew Research figures show. But through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military veterans themselves have come to worry that mainstream America has drifted away from those who serve, with 80 percent of young veterans and their families saying the country doesn’t grasp the burden of war.
When her husband, Brian, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 with the U.S. Army Reserve, Sherry Hancock knew no one else – no neighbors or friends, none of the parents of her daughter’s classmates – who served in the military. Hancock, a Davis computer consultant, felt isolated and alone, and she worried that her daughter, Laurana, now 14, had no one her age who understood what it was to have a father risking his life in the war zone.
It wasn’t until after Brian returned from Afghanistan that Hancock, now 44, learned of two other military families at her church.
“It took me awhile to find other people in our same situation,” she said. “I do have support now, but there was a void. People were wishing us well, but they didn’t understand.”