The Meaning of Service

There's nothing like a visit to Arlington National Cemetery to provide a new perspective on the significance of military service.

Sgt. Don Ballman wasn't what you'd call a warrior. In his years in the Army-which he spent in Germany after the Korean War-Don was never called on to share a foxhole with his buddies in combat. But that's not the point.

The point is, when the call to service came, Don answered. Like other men of his generation-and several of the generations that preceded his-he simply assumed that one day he would spend time in uniform serving his country.

So he did, and a few weeks ago, his country returned the favor. Don-the father of my oldest and closest friend, David Ballman-was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery on a beautiful, unseasonably warm spring day.

As Arlington ceremonies go, it wasn't elaborate-but it was no less elegant and poignant for its simplicity. After a cadre of soldiers gently unfurled a flag and placed it over Don's remains, a small group of others to our left raised their rifles and fired off a salute. As if on cue, a helicopter swooped over the cemetery from the Pentagon. As it disappeared, a bugler in the distance to our right played "Taps."

As a soldier bent down to offer David the gratitude of the nation for his father's service, my friend was visibly moved. So was I, and I immediately thought of my own father and his service in the Navy during the Korean War. That's odd, in a way, because my Dad always makes light of his service-which took place mostly on an aircraft carrier on the other side of the world from where the action was. He never saw battle, and was never injured-unless you count severe sunburn sustained at a beach during R&R.

Still, it's clear that my father was aware of some of the benefits of service. During the most intransigent period of my teenage years, when I never passed up an opportunity to test his authority (or my mother's), I remember him telling me, "I can't wait until the Navy gets you."

It never happened. Nor did the Army, the Marines or the Air Force "get" me, or David, or any of our other friends. I sat around the lunch table in elementary school during the Vietnam War, talking with my pals about how we would one day go off to war, as our grandfathers, fathers, uncles and brothers had done. I nervously went down to the post office with my college buddies when we turned 18 to register for the draft.

But I never got the call to serve. I had the good fortune of being in the vanguard of Americans who let others do the fighting for us. From an efficiency and effectiveness standpoint, that's proved to be a very sound approach. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has repeatedly pointed out, the all-volunteer force is a very well-trained and lethal military machine.

But maybe Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., who has proposed reinstituting a form of military draft, has a point. If we really are to have an indefinite war on terrorism, he argues, then we ought to expose a larger group of people to the risks associated with it.

That would at least raise the standard of debate on the issue of the use of military force. For example, because Democratic presidential standard-bearer John Kerry served honorably and with distinction in Vietnam, he could honorably, distinctly and vigorously oppose the war when he returned home.

With an all-volunteer force, on the other hand, members of the armed forces often serve under civilian government leaders who lack military experience. The percentage of members of Congress who have spent time in the armed forces continues to drop.

Relying exclusively on volunteers also makes us all too dependent on people like Pat Tillman, who gave his life in Afghanistan last month after turning down a $3.6 million pro football contract with the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army Rangers.

Of course, with a son and daughter of my own, I'll readily admit that I'm far less than fully comfortable with the idea of compulsory military service. But I have a very different perspective on the meaning of service after having spent a morning among the headstones at Arlington.

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