On April 5, the body of a deceased airman, Staff Sergeant Phillip Meyers, arrived back in the United States. Meyers was one of 679 American deaths in the War in Afghanistan, but there was an immense difference between the return of Meyers and all those who were killed before him: The media were allowed to witness the ceremony taking his body from the plane and transporting it to his family.
With a recent decision by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the media will once again be allowed to view the return of bodies from combat operations if the parents oblige. There is some controversy over this, but the media's coverage of these events is critical. It reminds the nation what the true cost of war is - not some monetary figure appropriated by Congress, but the loss of America's sons and daughters.
As of Feb. 28, 2009, there were 306,308,411 people living in the United States. As our nation continues engaged in two conflicts across the world, there are 1,454,515 members of the Armed Services. This is less than one half of 1 percent, serving as the defenders of the United States against any enemies we face.
As of last January, 19 members of the U.S. Senate, the most powerful legislative body in the nation, have served in the active duty ranks of our military. (Only eight served in combat.) This is extremely unsettling, as the majority of those who are making the decisions to send the sons and daughters of America into harm's way have not actually done so themselves.
Fewer and fewer Americans actually know someone who serves, and, because the armed forces are a self-selecting group, there is a growing distance between those who defend the nation and the general population. This phenomenon is startling, as the vast majority of Americans do not understand the Army's role for our country. This can be seen through a question posed by President Clinton's Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, to then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Colin Powell about the use of military force, when she asked, "What's the point of you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can't use it?" Due to the small participation in the military, the American populace is disconnected from the American armed services.
As the percentage of Americans who serve in uniform continues to dwindle, Gates made a great decision to allow the media to cover the return of soldiers killed in action for the first time since the Persian Gulf War. Americans have lost sight of what war really is. Instead of seeing the numbers of those killed in action on the news, they will now see the true effect of war on America. This will help Americans realize that war is real, that it is severe and there are dramatic costs associated with it.
Instead of seeing the armed forces as a separate entity, they will understand that these are their brothers and sisters who gave the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms that Americans hold so dear. Media coverage of an American service member's return to the United States under the stars and stripes is difficult to watch, but this coverage can serve to ensure the American people now truly understand the costs of war.
Jakob Johnsen was born in Juneau and is a senior at the U.S. Military Academy. The views expressed belong to the author and do not reflect opinions of the U.S. Military Academy or any branch of the Armed Forces.