Flying back home after six months in Afghanistan, Col. Stephanie Gradford said she had a conversation with a man who had no idea there were U.S. troops still there; she said it showed her the disconnect between the general public and the military.
Speaking at William and Mary for a Symposium on the All-Volunteer Force, Gradford said she supports a form of "universal service" where every citizen would serve in the military.
She doesn't spend much time trying to figure out why volunteers choose the military.
"I don't really think it matters," she said. "It's kind of like church. As long as you get there, that's the end goal."
At the symposium, Gradford and other speakers addressed whether the country's current volunteer system works, and whether America should continue it in the midst of conflicts abroad.
A smattering of students moved in and out of the Sadler Center's Commonwealth auditorium, but the crowd — around 50 for much of the afternoon — was primarily older citizens.
During the Vietnam War, Americans understood that troops overseas were fighting a war that was too costly, unneeded, or both.
America stopped using the draft to fill its military in 1973, partly due to public sentiment against that war. It had been in place since 1940 and provided men to fight wars in Korea and Vietnam.
Andrew Bacevich, a Vietnam War veteran and history professor at Boston University, also supports some form of national service. Such a plan, he acknowledged, does not come without its own set of issues.
"There are almost four million 18 year olds each year," he said. "That would mean close to 4 million opportunities we'd need to give them."
During the Vietnam War, one of the reasons people protested was because they could be called to service via the draft. One of the biggest changes between the 1970s and now is that people don't feel directly tied to the actions the military takes, Bacevich said.
The citizen-soldier model is part of how to fix the disconnect in Bacevich's eyes. In both of what he called "America's signature victories" — World War II and the Civil War — regular citizens fought at a moment's notice.
"More often than not, citizen armies won," he said. "When citizens went to war, citizens paid attention."
Today's political establishment has taken a hard stance on war and where America sits within it, Bacevich said.
"The United States finds itself permanently at war. You won't have a shot at being President of our country if you are anti-war or even anti-interventionist," Bacevich said.
Brian Formy-Duval has been in the United States Army for 23 years. He joined the Army once college costs began to bear down on him.
After an introductory military science class intrigued him, the actual military provided him a way to pay for classes.
"That first bill from college showed up, and I had no idea how I was going to pay for it," he said. "An Army recruiter told me about the Army and explained some ways they could help. Twenty-three years later, here I am."
Carlisle Barracks, a 500-acre Army facility in Pennsylvania where he lives with his family, restricts public access like other American bases. That exclusion serves to remove the military from many people's minds.
"I very seldom leave my base. I don't need to leave for anything. Why leave Post? I have my own grocery store. My kids have Boy Scouts. You can't come on the base and see what we're doing. All this is hurting that diversity. It's an issue."
Many times, the military tends to recruit from the same areas.
"Sixty percent of soldiers have direct relatives in the military," he said. "Fifty percent near a military base."
Recruiters spend time in the South because many of the people from those areas end up in the military. Formy-Duval compared military recruitment to the nuances of fishing.
"For those of you who know fishing in here, you have your honey hole," he said, referring to a place that has a lot of fish. "Why do we go to those states? Because they produce."
Alabama, Formy-Duval said, has 5 million people but produces more solidiers than the combined populations of Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. Those cities contain around 35 million people, he said.
The key for military recruiters is to go after people the Army — and military in general — have traditionally not sought out.
"We've got to find a way to get these higher education types and other elites," he said. Making the Army and the military as a whole more inclusive could help grow its numbers.
"The culture is thank you for your service, but not my child," he said.
Wright can be reached by phone at 757-345-2343.