Navy Rear Adm. (Ret.) Leendert “Len” Hering, Sr. captured the attention of service-club members — many of them veterans themselves — as he shared details on little-known facts about the changing demographics of the U.S. military.
“We’ve changed the dynamics of where we are as a nation,” said Hering, who noted this is reflected in the changing composition of the nation’s military forces.
“Today, there are 21.2 million veterans out of 315 million Americans; 1.6 million are female, 1.8 million are younger than 35,” Hering said.
“Less than 6 percent of the population of today’s America has served and, of those, 600 to 1,000 are passing [away] every day.”
Hering said those coming from military families have “a propensity to serve, which is significantly higher” than the general population.
The U.S. military is changing in other ways though, too, Hering said.
“There are fewer and fewer individuals who can meet the education standards and skills required for the highly technical warfare of today,” he said, adding the average annual income of veterans — about $36,000 — is also significantly more than the average annual civilian wage of $26,400.
A historian by nature, Hering urged Torrey Pines Rotary’s veterans, and veterans everywhere, to “tell their stories.”
“Who’s going to really tell the stories of Iwo Jima, Bataan, the Battle of the Bulge, etc., to the folks who need to hear it — the 94 percent who have never served?” he asked.
With advances in medical technology, Hering said more combat soldiers who “previously would have been left on the battlefield as casualties,” are surviving to return and rebuild their lives with disabilities.
“We have 3.6 million vets — more than 50 percent — who have service-connected disabilities,” Hering said. “We have five times more amputees in this conflict [in Afghanistan] than any other conflict we’ve been in. Many more are being brought back into society, and the sad part is many of them are not recovering. Our suicide rate in the service today is at an all-time high. We lost more servicemen to suicide last year than we did in actual combat.”
The roots of Veterans Day on Nov. 11 go back to the armistice signed between the allied nations and Germany in 1918 that ended World War I on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” in the so-called “war to end all wars.”
Armistice Day didn’t take on broader implications until former general and then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower in October 1954 proclaimed that Nov. 11 would henceforth become a day “to honor American veterans of all wars.”
Veterans suffer higher proportionately than the rest of the population from many difficulties resulting from the transition from military to civilian life.
“Vets are three times more likely to be unemployed,” said Hering. “Why? Why do we have more than 900 vets, our brothers in arms, homeless in the streets of San Diego? The nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten.”
Hering said Veterans Day is the nation’s most mixed-up national holiday.
“Memorial Day and Veterans Day are the most confused holidays in America,” he said. “Most citizens do not truly understand the difference.”
Hering said veterns, like those in the Torrey Pines Rotary Club, have a role to play in “how America moves forward and shapes what is Veterans Day.”
What should Veterans Day mean?
“It’s a time for the entire country to reflect on and celebrate veterans’ achievements and service,” Hering said, adding it’s an especially poignant time for veterans to reflect on what they’ve achieved through their service because, “If vets don’t do the reflecting — then the reflection is shallow.”
Hering said there’s a motto he, as a veteran, prizes: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of all those who threaten it. It’s the home of the free because we are brave.”
The son of an American sailor who spent most his adult life in the U.S. Navy, Hering said he has three sons, “an heir and two spares,” whom he hopes will “carry on the charge.”