Editor’s Note: Tammy Duckworth is a Democratic US senator from Illinois. She is an Iraq War veteran, Purple Heart recipient and former assistant secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs in the Obama administration. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.
I probably should’ve died in a dusty field in Iraq 15 years ago today.
I still remember the rain coming down that morning, and I still remember the taste of my lunch that afternoon.
But most of all, I remember the scorching heat and deafening roar of the RPG that tore through the helicopter I was flying just north of Baghdad—a blast that cost me my legs and nearly my life as well.
I wouldn’t have lasted the hour if it weren’t for the heroism of the troops around me, who thought I was already dead yet risked their own lives to bring my body back home to my family.
So from the moment I woke up in Walter Reed 11 days later, I vowed to find a way to repay my buddies who saved me as well as all those who’ve sacrificed so much to defend this nation.
I can’t fly combat missions anymore or be the one to drag soldiers from a burning Black Hawk if the worst should strike again. But what I can do is use my new role, serving no longer from the cockpit but the Senate, to ensure our Armed Forces are the strongest they can be.
Because while today we have the greatest military on Earth, the same may not be true tomorrow if we keep to the path we’ve been treading.
We must invest in our citizens, not just our weapons
For too long, we’ve embraced an oversimplified view of what constitutes national strength, measuring the might of our military by the size of our defense budget, making the flawed assumption that our past dominance and credibility can predict our future place in the world.
But ISIS doesn’t care that we stormed the beaches of Normandy. Russia isn’t giving us points because once upon a time we outraced them to the moon. China doesn’t give a damn about what we did during Desert Storm.
We will lose ground, literally and figuratively, if we sit back and assume that last century’s tactics will win us next the decades’ wars — if we believe that 2030’s battles will be decided solely by how much money we spend on fighter jets or how many terrorists we capture.
No. Instead, we need to balance investing in our weaponry with investing in our citizenry, rejecting the false choice between looking out for our troops overseas and caring for our families here at home.
We need to recognize that it’s not an either/or. Our power abroad stems from our strength on US soil, and refusing to fund domestic priorities like our health care system or our schools in a zero-sum game with our defense budget isn’t just morally bereft but dangerously shortsighted.
In 2017, the Pentagon announced that only 29% of Americans between 17 and 24 are considered fit to serve. The other 71% are barred from enlisting largely either because of their health, because they don’t have the necessary basic education or because of past drug use.
Meanwhile, the Army missed its recruiting goals last year for the first time since the peak of the Iraq War.
So I’m not pushing for more education or health care funding just because they’re Democratic priorities. I’m doing so because I want our military to remain the strongest in the world, and we don’t stand a chance of that if most of our would-be recruits can’t even get to basic training. I’m doing so because our place on the global stage is contingent on us doing the work today to ensure more people can wear the uniform tomorrow.
If we don’t… well, then we’ll be letting our dwindling recruiting pool shrink even faster, ceding our place in the world to bad actors like Russia and China in the process.
Education is key to national security
There are obvious ways to expand that pool that show both common sense and common decency.
Despite the Pentagon’s troubling data showing a third of young Americans are considered too unhealthy or too overweight to serve, this administration has repeatedly tried to strip health care from millions.
That’s not just cruel, it’s counterproductive: When they make it harder for a 20-something person to get health care, they’re sapping the military’s potential strength while claiming we need to spend more money making our forces more powerful.
The military already pours $1.5 billion-plus a year into obesity-related matters, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No one can claim to care about military spending or readiness if they don’t support the basic health care policies that would actually get our forces into better fighting shape.
It’s a similar story when it comes to education. There’s something wrong when swaths of potential recruits can’t serve because they either never earned a high school diploma or GED or they failed the military’s eighth-grade level entrance exam.
But here, too, there are concrete ways to address the problem. Research suggests that early learning directly affects long-term development, with one study even showing that at-risk kids who attended good preschools were 44% more likely to graduate high school. Meanwhile, a 2015 Pentagon study uncovered $125 billion in bureaucratic waste.
Imagine how many more kids would graduate if we redirected some of that squandered money into Head Start programs or public schools instead. And if we don’t make these kinds of investments, imagine how many would-be Marines or Green Berets — how many would-be heroes — we’d be missing out on just to stick with a status quo that doesn’t actually benefit anyone.
It’s never been a choice between schools and national security. Just as investing in future vertical-lift aircraft is a much-needed investment in our Army, so too is investing in the child who could be capable of flying that helicopter someday — the child who could grow into a pilot brave enough to risk their life to pull an injured buddy out of a burning helicopter.
America can be better
It’s now been 15 years since my “alive day” – that day I should’ve died when our Black Hawk was shot out of the sky. And even while much in the world has changed since that afternoon, somehow our troops are still being deployed on rotation into the desert.
At this point, it’s clear we can no longer keep to yesterday’s definition of national strength: one in which we measure the military’s might by the number of commas in its budget.
Because unless our citizenry is strong, our weaponry won’t matter.
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There is no real choice between caring for our troops and caring about our classrooms. There is no real choice between wanting our military to be the toughest on Earth and believing in progressive policies. There is no real choice between loving our country and wanting to make it better.
In fact, working to improve America is exactly what has allowed it to be so great for so long.