At the very core of the civil-military divide is the soldier’s sense of proximity to death

At the very core of the civil-military divide is the soldier’s sense of proximity to death

By Maj. Daniel Sukman, U.S. Army
Best Defense mid-life correspondent on life reflections

I turn 36 today — somewhere near halfway through a normal life nowadays.

But what made this year different has been my time to reflect on being a part of the Army profession. This reflection comes after another year of our nation being at war and my losing a couple more friends and colleagues in the fight. One was killed overseas in Afghanistan, and another took his own life early in the year, but I count both as casualties of the "GWOT."

This time has caused me to think about the civilian-military divide that so many have written about on this site, on others, and in various publications such as those produced by the War College. I have listened to some senior Army leaders speak about how to bridge this divide, and I have come to the conclusion that the civilian-military divide lies in proximity to death.

It means as a 36-year-old, death has been a part of life over the past 12 years, something few Americans my age have experienced. When I think about it, all my peers (by peer I mean people about my age, +/- 7 years or so) I know who have passed away have all done so in uniform. When you think about it, most people at 36 may know someone lost in a car accident, an early unfortunate battle with cancer, or some other horrible disease, but they have not had the experience of attending a memorial ceremony once a week for a year, or a funeral for someone their own age on multiple occasions. How many have had to walk up to a door as a notification officer to inform a family about the death of a husband, son, father, daughter, or mother, or work for a week as a casualty assistance officer? Not many. It is a different version of the one percent.

I have heard senior leaders discuss and read bloggers’ comments on how the civilian-military divide can be solved by having servicemembers do their shopping at Walmart, or moving out of the barracks into towns adjoining a base. I don’t buy it. Moving off Fort Campbell into Clarksville or off Fort Bragg into Fayetteville won’t challenge the divide. You can live on post, in New York City, or Narnia, and it won’t influence what separates civilians from the military in America. Shopping at Target and having your credit card information stolen, living off base, or buying a car at normal interest rates will not remove the demand for deployments and the proximity to death that servicemembers face in their chosen profession.

This closeness to death has caused other points of reflection over the past year. The most resident in my mind is life’s priorities. I am very blessed to have a terrific family, a loving wife and two young children, and closeness to death moves family to the top of priorities. I think that realization comes early for those who have served in uniform (albeit not for everyone), due to proximity to death.

This is not a PTSD that I am describing. Rather a life experience that most young Americans do not have in their background. This is the divide, and I don’t see it as inherently good or bad, or as a Ginger/Mary Ann or Rolling Stones/Beatles type of dichotomy. I just as see it as something that is there.

The mid-thirties are when many people become focused on career, as that is for many the prime time of their chosen profession. After a few years in combat, leaving work a little early to help my wife feed the kids at night, or leaving the house a little later in the morning to feed my kids breakfast seems to be the rational choice. I know my daughter will eventually be potty trained, but I still want to be at the house to help out with the potty training. I work with some great individuals, but probably none of them will be visiting me in the nursing home in 50 years.

These reflections do not mean that professional responsibilities are overlooked, but the closeness of death opens up a new perspective on life, a perspective gained at an earlier time in life that I think is for the most part unique to those in uniform. In that respect, it is a view of life that I am proud to have.

Major Daniel Sukman, U.S. Army, is a strategist at the Army Capabilities Integration Center, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Eustis, Virginia. He holds a B.A. from Norwich University and an M.A. from Webster University. During his career, Maj. Sukman has been part of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and United States European Command. He served three combat tours in Iraq. This article represents his personal views, which are not necessarily those of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense.