A New Purpose

When I left Portland State nine years ago, I had little inkling that almost a decade later I would be reading so many devastating student essays about loss, conflict and injury. Very few among us are certain of the paths we'll follow in our professional lives and, as a Portlander, I couldn't foresee that I would sink roots in one of the country's largest military towns.

U.S. Representative Ander Crenshaw recently estimated that there are 250,000 military personnel stationed on Florida's First Coast. When I moved here in 2005, I expected to read essays about military service, and I did. Most of those essays came from wives and parents--people whose transient military lives and financial health were impacted by frequent deployments and relocations.

The essays were sad, but they don't hold a candle to the stuff I've been reading in the last eighteen months. I've read essays by marines who have killed in close quarters, and have been debilitated by the guilt. I've read essays about the loss of limbs, diminished cognitive ability, problems with social acclimation and the loss of basic human dignity. I've worked with students from the Wounded Warrior project who have suffered immensely--both physically and mentally. The Director of Deerwood Center, Dr. Patty Adeeb, has been instrumental in helping many of these young men and women find a home at our college.

I've read essays filled with the most heinous of acronyms: IEDs and PTSD and the like. I've read about students having breakdowns in parking lots at the sound of car backfires, and of former soldiers menacing their neighbors because they struggle with the transition back to civilian life.

And the more of these essays I read, and the greater the number of these students I encounter, the more it makes me a firm believer in the idea that our military must change its focus. We should keep troop levels at their current states, but we need to bring home our overseas military (our combat troops, at least) and begin training these soldiers in skilled labor positions so that they can assist on the homefront.

Soldiers should still be given the necessary skills to succeed in their military commitments, but augmenting their skills in the trades would be a boon to our country. These soldiers could work in industry when not deployed. The military could develop training facilities, partnering with the civilian community to educate soldiers in skilled labor.

Imagine the benefits to New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Katrina had the military been able to dispatch welders, builders, medical personnel and first responders in greater numbers.

Mike Rowe recently
testified in Washington about the need for additional skilled labor in this country. While not every American is interested in higher education (nor are there enough jobs to support such a lofty aspiration), we could make our military an even stronger proving ground for equipping our citizens with life skills.

Some soldiers enjoy these benefits already, but that group is in the minority. By mandating an ancillary approach to skills development for all soldiers, we can improve our response in times of trouble. Think about what we've seen with the flooding in Louisiana and the tornadoes in the Midwest and you get my point.

We're just two weeks away from hurricane season.

Some have predicted that this will be a
century of destruction. Whether it is or not, it just makes sense to repurpose our military to not only defend our nation's security, but also improve our labor foundation in the interim.

I'm adamantly against the idea of erecting a wall between our country and one of our greatest allies, Mexico (didn't we recently ask a certain country in Europe to tear down theirs?). How about using American troops to patrol the border in greater numbers? Give them the training in law enforcement to succeed, and they can begin to make a positive impact on the negative aspects of illegal immigration.

Things are bad in Afghanistan. According to recent
U.S. military reports
, morale is at an all-time low. And the number of soldiers that have been injured, seen a colleague killed, or been in the direct vicinity of an explosion is staggering. I probably wouldn't believe it if I didn't read so many essays confirming those findings, or see so many students making their way around the college with prosthetic limbs.

Defend the country. Earn a living wage. But also build the individual soldier as a whole, so we can respond with experience and agility in times of crisis on our own soil...

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