This actually happened. In a hotel lobby, I watched a woman walk up to an Air Force colonel and ask directions to the elevator.
She thought the colonel was a bellhop.
The memory of that encounter resurfaced when Air Force Times published an article by staff writer Oriana Pawlyk about dumb things civilians say to airmen.
You know. Things like, “Do they give you real bullets?”
It was an amusing article with a light touch thanks in part to the cartoon artistry of Austin M. May.
But there’s a serious side to civilian ignorance of military matters.
Our society has moved far away from having military members who are representative of the nation they serve.
In a new book “Breach of Trust,” retired Army Col. Andrew J. Bacevich writes that the U.S. public is eager to support the troops so long as the troops are somebody else’s sons and daughters.
In my lifetime, we’ve gone from the citizen-soldier to the warrior ethos. We’ve gone from a draft (from 1940 to 1973) to an all-volunteer force.
When I was a child during World War II, nearly every American was involved in the war or had a family member or friend who was. Civilians of that era knew the difference between a soldier and a Marine. They knew nomenclature for military equipment.
Today, news sources cite 1 percent as the portion of our population that serves in the military and 3 percent as the portion that has a family member in uniform.
We’re not likely to increase the size of the armed forces in the foreseeable future, so those percentages won’t get larger.
We can give every American family a stake by reinstating a draft. Or we can take less drastic measures by seeking new ways to increase citizen involvement in military matters.
Bacevich wants “a lottery with Natasha and Malia Obama at age eighteen having the same chance of being drafted as the manicurist’s son or the Walmart clerk’s daughter.” In his world, sons and daughters of the very wealthy would be at risk for military service alongside those from the middle class.
Restoring a draft would threaten the competence and professionalism of American military members.
I’d willingly pay that price, but our elected leaders know better. There’s no realistic possibility Congress will support a draft anytime soon. The public — despite its yellow ribbons and “Support the Troops” bumper stickers — probably won’t support a draft, either.
So we need to look harder at ways to reach out to the civilian world. Every stateside unit has some kind of community outreach. We need to expand the effort.
Any Rotary Club or Lions Club would love to have a staff sergeant or a captain speak at a meeting and describe life in uniform. Let’s work harder to get working-level airmen out into the community.
We won’t wipe out cluelessness in our era, but we can combat it — and should.
Dorr, an Air Force veteran, is the author of “Mission to Tokyo.” Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org.