Commentary by Army Col. Michael Forsyth
3/19/2015 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- I often hear it said that today's generation is nothing but slackers, concerned only about gratifying themselves.
I remember my parents' generation saying the same thing about mine, and I
suspect my grandparents made similar statements about my parents'
My grandparents sprung from the so-called 'Greatest Generation,' the
moniker popularized by Tom Brokaw's book chronicling the sacrifices made
during World War II.
While I hold the 'Greatest Generation' in high esteem - several of my
relatives served overseas in World War II - the latest generation is
proving that it deserves respect and recognition for enormous sacrifices
in current conflicts.
Today's service members, I believe, represent America's new 'Greatest Generation.'
Since 9/11, more than thirteen years ago, well over a million young
Americans have volunteered to serve their country in a time of war.
When the war began in October 2001, resulting in the toppling of the
Taliban, there were more than two million personnel serving in all
components of the armed forces.
A large number of these subsequently served and sacrificed in harm's way
at some point over the last thirteen years, which is very commendable.
However, all of those who volunteered to serve after 9/11 have done so
with the knowledge that they will most likely deploy into combat to
Iraq, Afghanistan, or both.
With this level of volunteerism in a volatile world, is it justifiable
to say that this generation of Americans is any less deserving of esteem
than previous generations?
The plight of today's service member is better than that of one from the 1940s.
In World War II, there were no Gor-Tex jackets for warmth, no
air-conditioned barracks, and no text messaging to stay in contact with
family. Once inducted into service, a young person back then would not
see their family for years, in many cases.
But today's generation has its own unique set of challenges to overcome -
a cycle of multiple one-year deployments; hard training between
deployments; and combat in the extreme environments of Asia.
The young people who volunteer to do this are special precisely because
they do so with the knowledge that such hardships are part of their
Most of today's volunteers are under the age of 29, and they come from
every demographic of American society and from all 50 states and our
territories. At home they may have been high-school athletes or couch
potatoes playing video games. But regardless where they came from or
what they did at home, they volunteered to serve in a time of war.
The motivation might have been adventure, college money, a chance to see the world, or to do something above satisfying self.
Whatever the case, they came forward when the nation needed them and
have offered themselves as a potential sacrifice to meet those needs.
Volunteering in today's armed services is an act deserving of the
highest order of respect.
One of these fine young people served in my battalion in Afghanistan in
2009. Sgt. Elijah J. Rao volunteered to serve in the Army in 2004. His
mother told me he did this to ensure the events of 9/11 would never
again occur on American soil. Rao became a field artillery
meteorological crew member in a field artillery battalion and served a
15-month tour of duty in Iraq after enlisting.
Just weeks after returning in 2008, our battalion began preparations for a deployment to Afghanistan.
Training took Sergeant Rao away from his wife and child for weeks at a time as we readied for the Afghan battlefield.
The training included turning communicators, cooks, artillerymen, and
meteorological crewmen into infantrymen. We deployed in June of 2009,
and almost immediately engaged in firefights on multiple occasions with
On Dec. 5, 2009, Sgt. Rao made the ultimate sacrifice when he was killed
by an improvised explosive device while patrolling with his platoon in
western Nuristan Province.
This sacrifice is worthy of the greatest honor - and it has been
replayed more than 6,000 times during the course of this conflict. Rao
is representative of the New Greatest Generation.
Today's generation is a reflection of our society and services from generations past.
When I began my service to the nation in the 1980s, many Vietnam veterans trained and mentored me.
These men were trained by the heroes of World War II and Korea, who
inculcated a sense of duty in the next generation of service members
eager to emulate the liberators of Europe and the Pacific.
But the 'Greatest Generation' also had mentors - a generation of
doughboys who burst onto the scene in Europe to end the tragedy of the
Before them was a generation of Civil War veterans who saved the Union
in the mid-19th century. This thread of tradition, service, and
sacrifice traces all the way back to the roots of our nation.
During the American Revolution, a ragtag band of young people with a
desire for freedom came together to inaugurate a new nation. Their
sacrifices began a long line of future generations who answered their
country's call in war and performed with dignity and honor.
Today's generation is their legacy - one passed through the generations
to maintain service traditions and preserve our great nation. Today's
service member is a reflection, from a distant mirror, of great
This generation of American service members will pass on the precious
legacy they received to yet another generation - which will, I am quite
sure, be spoken ill of, denigrating their values, work ethic, and
Nevertheless, from today's service members and that future generation
will come teachers, civic leaders, youth coaches, entrepreneurs, and
statesmen. Inculcated with the values passed on by previous generations,
they will ensure America remains the greatest nation on earth because
it is a place of freedom with responsibility.
Our charter as the 'older' generation is to pass on the values and
traditions - the legacy - of our forebears so they can carry America
Today's young people are probably the same as all previous generations;
they are immature and full of energy channeled in various directions -
as we expect all young people to be. Volunteering for service to the
nation is a crucible by which this, and every other, generation proves
Today's service members have proven as worthy of praise as any from the past.
They will take the mantle of leadership and become the standard bearers
of tomorrow. We must mentor them to reach their full potential for a
bright future, rather than berating them for shortcomings.
If we do, then based on the example today's young men and women have
demonstrated, they will earn the sobriquet America's New Greatest