Gates calls on students to serve, to 'take a risk'
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates took time to relive his ivory tower days with a visit Wednesday to Duke University, where he reflected on what he described as a growing divide between the all-volunteer armed forces and the rest of American society.
Gates, a former president of Texas A&M University and the holder of a doctorate in Russian and Soviet history from Georgetown University, noted that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan often receive a hero's welcome from the public at large, in contrast the often chilly reception given to Vietnam veterans in the 1960s and 1970s.
"It is also true, however, that whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans the war remains an abstraction," he said. "A distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally. Even after 9/11, in the absence of a draft, for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do."
Gates emphasized to his audience on the Durham, N.C. campus that he wasn't calling to reinstitute the draft, an idea he termed "politically impossible" and also "overwhelmingly opposed by the military's leadership."
But he asked for recognition that a narrow sliver of the U.S. population has carried the burden of fighting two drawn-out wars, a burden that has resulted in a growing suicide rate among the armed forces and accumulated strain on their families.
"It begs the question: How long can these brave and broad young shoulders carry the burden that we - as a military, as a government, as a society - continue to place on them?"
To relieve that burden, Gates called upon students in the audience to consider a career in the military or other forms of public service.
"Think about what you can do to earn your freedom," he said. "I would encourage you and all young Americans, especially those at the most selective universities who may have not considered the military, to do so. To go outside your comfort zone and take a risk in every sense of the word."
| September 29, 2010; 6:50 PM ET
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