If you were to ask, I would never have said that my family has any sort of military tradition. Our family history doesn’t include any great heroes or participants in major battles or campaigns. However, on doing some personal reflection yesterday for Veterans Day I realized that at least three generations of my family have served.
Mind you, I am stretching a point with my father. The sum total of his military experience was a brief stint in the home guard in Belize during World War II. In the unlikely event that the Axis powers invaded the mangrove swamps of Belize, my father and his friends were prepared to defend their homeland. I only know about his service from a funny story he used to tell. It seems that while they were drilling in an aircraft hangar my father accidentally discharged his rifle. The resulting scramble for cover by his fellow soldiers did not bode well for the future performance of the home guard in battle.
My own service was considerably different. After completing college on an Army scholarship, I spent seven years in Germany at the height of the Cold War. It was a serious time – Vietnam was just winding down, there was war in the Mideast that threatened to spill over into a nuclear conflict, and the Warsaw Pact forces were becoming aggressive. As so often happens after a war, we had to deal with outdated equipment, personnel shortages, and limited training budgets. Drug and alcohol abuse was common as the Army tried to redefine itself after the debacle of Vietnam. But I learned more about life in one year there than I had in four at college.
If my war was cold, my son’s was considerably warmer. Following September 11, my son felt the need to do something and enlisted in the Army Reserve. Shortly after completing his training, his transportation unit was deployed to Kuwait for a year to provide support for the combat in Iraq. He still doesn’t talk much about his experiences there.
I left active duty to complete my Master’s degree and enter a career in public service, though I did continue to serve in the Reserves until retirement. My son completed his service and is currently enrolled in a police academy. We do not consider ourselves a “military” family. Nor do we consider ourselves “heroes” for having served. I did meet a number of true heroes during my service and I think that title truly belongs to them, not to me. The rest of us were just getting on with the job we had chosen.
Yet our experiences in the military changed us in subtle ways. The lessons I learned about leading groups of people from disparate backgrounds have influenced and continues to influence me. My son returned from Kuwait a confident, mature man. We are proud of our service and of the bond we share with other men and women who have served. But we are well aware that neither the military nor everyone who serves in it is perfect. So please don’t call us heroes; we’re just ordinary people who chose to do a particularly nasty job.
Did I miss something? Judging from the lack of news coverage, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Ebola crisis has been solved. My morning paper didn’t carry a single article on Ebola and even the respected Facebook site Ebola Virus Info has not had an entry since November 4. What few stories I have been able to find have had little substance. Instead, the news is all about the recent elections.
This, of course, is not unusual. We’ve conditioned the public to have a short attention span. Problem surfaces, public concern is elevated, the government overreacts, a new story emerges – problem solved. Unfortunately, problems don’t go away; they’re still there even though our attention has moved on to something else. As I have noted in a previous blog, one would expect that our experiences with SARS and H1N1 would’ve made it clear that pandemics are a very real risk and that we need to maintain the capacity to deal with them. Yet judging from our reaction to the Ebola “crisis” we still lack the capacity to deal with a biological threat, no matter the cause.
This myopia does not pertain to just biological threats. We see the same lack of judgment when we rebuild on barrier islands, in floodplains, and below levies following a disaster. We seem to have an inherent belief that if we ignore risk it doesn’t exist.
All the more reason than for those who work in emergency management to remain focused on incrementally building capacity to deal with actual risk. During the run up to Y2K, the public’s attention was fully engaged in dealing with vague predictions of catastrophic, world ending computer failures. But in addition to addressing these public concerns, emergency planners around the country were quietly developing a metropolitan medical response systems and task forces to respond to a potential terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction. When September 11 occurred, that capacity was already in place and we were beginning to focus on pandemic planning.
The real trick is to remain focused on actual rather than perceived risk. When everyone around you is running around screaming about the sky falling, it’s tough to be the one saying, “No, the real problem is that the river is rising.” You won’t be thanked and you won’t be appreciated but, in the long run, you will make a difference.