If they don’t understand it, why would they consider serving in it?

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When in uniform and far away from a military post, I am often greeted by strangers and thanked for my service. They have paid for my meals and treated me to coffee. I truly appreciate the recognition of service to our country and the value placed on being a veteran. However, I believe most do not fully understand what that service really means.

The “volunteer” in our all-volunteer force is what makes the military successful. As an officer in the U.S. Army, I meet young people in the Seattle area every day who do not understand their country’s military. If they don’t understand it, why would they consider serving in it?

In order to maintain the long-term prosperity of the military and ultimately of the nation, we must all invest in our youth and inspire them to serve — or we won’t have an all-volunteer force on which to rely.

The reality is only 29 percent of youth meet the qualifications to serve in our nation’s military. What I see as an even bigger issue is the fact that about 50 percent of youth admit to knowing little to nothing about their military.

When I talk to youth, parents and even teachers about the 150 different career opportunities in the Army, the ability to earn college degrees at the Army’s expense, and the technical skills and certifications that lead to higher-paying jobs after a term of service, the overwhelming response is, “I had no idea.”

I see this lack of understanding as a disservice to our youth as well as to our nation.

As a society, we need to better understand what service means and the opportunities it provides our youth. This will ensure they have the opportunity to make an informed decision as they explore their options — college education, technical schools, immediate employment options and, yes, the military.

There are youthful misperceptions about the military. These range from service being seen as a risky venture, a perceived last resort, or being supportive of partisan political views. Others may see the military as being a social engineering laboratory.

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In reality, the military is insurance to protect the American way of life. It is a civilian-led, diverse and nonpartisan organization. The military represents America as service members come from almost every community in our country. It is a professional organization that invests in its people by providing experience, training and educational opportunities to develop future leaders.

Those who serve commit to a lifestyle of honor that fosters respect and inspires confidence. Service offers a framework to explore individual potential and provides structure for individual contributions to national beliefs and values.

While experiences may vary, service is a journey of character development at a young age. Military service shapes youthful service members’ lives and solidifies their moral fiber. It is the yardstick by which many veterans measure the rest of their lives.

If you take the time to talk to veterans, I promise they will highlight the military’s high standards, competitive nature, and their experience with risk and reward. Reflecting on their experiences, older veterans at a recent VFW event described their time in military service as a transformative experience and the high point of their character development.

Statistics show veterans are more likely to vote, volunteer, and be involved in their communities. They have higher median incomes than their non-veteran counterparts. Veterans set the example for what we should want from our youth. So why aren’t more of us encouraging them to consider service as an option?

Future generations will benefit from having served and be better citizens. The American public has a vested interest in service. The experience of service is an investment in our collective future as the all-volunteer force is responsive domestically and engaged globally.

So this Memorial Day, when you see a veteran, thank them for serving. And when you see a young American, encourage them to serve.