As a pilot-in-command of a UH-60 Blackhawk for the U.S. Army, my job affords me a unique view of what the world looks like inside the Beltway. Nearly every day, I approach the Wilson Bridge at 150 miles-per-hour and skim above the Potomac just high enough to take in the Capitol, Washington Monument and the Jefferson and Lincoln Monuments. Most days I hang a left at Memorial Bridge and settle slowly to the ground just outside of the Pentagon, where I pick up or drop off some of the more prominent people in our government and military.
My wife Hanna also gets up every morning and serves her country. She takes the subway from our house in Virginia to downtown Washington, where she is a Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA) under the anti-poverty arm of AmeriCorps. Her view of life inside the Beltway is not as elevated as mine. She serves in the trenches of a battle that most Americans don't even realize is being fought, although her efforts to elevate America's less fortunate embody the very essence of why we honor Jefferson and Lincoln.
There is an unmistakably large disparity in the gratitude our country returns our service. I am at one end of the spectrum: a soldier who serves anonymously but whose profession is lauded with nearly religious accolades from proud politicians, Time Magazine, and millions of loud bumper-stickers spanning the nation in solidarity. Hanna, on the other hand, is barely known to the public mind. I am a member of the institution that displays America's massive strength outside our borders, and I am rewarded generously by a grateful nation. She serves in our nation's capital enhancing the principles of equality and justice that we claim is our morally-guided construct in other parts of the world. Yet she is scarcely rewarded at all.
This disparity shakes the very foundation of how we define our culture. While the projection of force may be a diplomatic necessity, to honor our warriors while ignoring those who volunteer to build this country from within is to accept a new American ethos that places equality second to superiority. If we as a people were offered the opportunity to serve principles other than those that are articulated by the show and use of force, however, I believe we could rise again to reclaim our fabled egalitarian ethos.
In June 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the "GI Bill of Rights" in order to get the country back to work after World War II. This legislation proved to be enormously successful. During the program's peak year in 1947, veterans accounted for 49 percent of college enrollment. Although it cost $14.5 billion (a considerable amount at the time), it was an intelligent investment in the economy's most valuable commodity: its people. The bill prevented millions from flooding the labor force and trained a generation of advanced workers who fueled an unprecedented economic boom. It was a model social spending bill that yielded unprecedented economic returns, and it should be emulated today with an eye toward a different kind of veteran.
Today I participate in what is known as the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB). In return for three years of military service at a decent wage, full healthcare, and a tax-free housing allowance, I receive 36 months of school benefits. It's a government incentive that represents an exemplary effort to reward those who serve, but it only applies to those who serve in uniform.
When Hanna graduated from college she was $37,000 in debt. She too wanted to serve, and she chose to work in a "teacher shortage" area designated by the Secretary of Education. The federal government did provide her an incentive to do this. They froze the interest on one of her loans and gave her $875 a year toward the principal. Unfortunately, this loan only accounted for a small portion of her college debt and it was difficult to pay any of it back on a starting salary of $24,000. Yet she taught for three years. Why wasn't her service rewarded with the same sincere gratitude that my first three years in the Army were?
How we invest our resources as a nation is a moral question. We vote with our money by revealing our cultural references dictating those enterprises that are worthy of investment and those that are not. The federal military budget is $400 billion this year. The Corporation for National and Community Service, which encompasses AmeriCorps and is the only substantial service program that offers an alternative to the military, squeaked out $940 million (a little less than a quarter of a percent of the military budget).
In our nation's capital, more than 35 percent of adults read at or below the fourth grade level. Hanna is trying to change that, and although it would seem fundamental and necessary for a nation to invest in a volunteer like her, she can only afford to serve because my paycheck covers both of us. I don't argue that my compensation isn't justified. But when our stories are framed together, it's impossible not to use the word "negligent" in describing the nation's commitment to service of any other kind than military. In my mind, until Hanna is equally rewarded with a proper paycheck, decent health care and a respectable schooling stipend, soap-box speeches about America's egalitarian principles will do nothing more than fill the empty space above the bedrock of our military foundation.
Jonathan Evans is a UH-60 Blackhawk pilot in the U.S. Army. The views expressed are his own.