Editor's note: The following is an opinion piece. The writer is not employed by Military Times and the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Military Times or its editorial staff.

When I returned from Iraq in 2007, I took my family on a Christmas vacation to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, a resort town that combines the glitz of Las Vegas with the traditional values of rural America.

One night, while attending a concert full of celebrity impersonators, I was caught off guard when, during intermission, “Elvis” put down his guitar and asked every veteran in the audience to stand. I was embarrassed, but I stood up with a handful of others as the audience applauded and The King thanked us for our service.

I was humbled. If I hadn’t been trying to play the cool young officer, I would have blushed. Yet as grateful as I was, there was something missing — and I did not start to figure out what it was until I began talking to my civilian friends about my military experiences:

  • When I was on leave from Korea, I was shocked when high school classmates asked several times which Korea I was stationed in —North or South.
  • A contemporary was astounded that soldiers had to use the weapons the Army issued: “I thought you guys could just bring your rifles from home.”
  • A friend said he would never date anyone in the military because if it went bad, his ex could use the Army’s surveillance systems to stalk him.

I slowly realized what had unsettled me during my brush with rhinestoned greatness in Pigeon Forge: It wasn’t that people didn’t care, but that so few had any idea what those in the military actually did.

Then it hit me: People in the military don’t really need applause. They need their fellow countrymen to understand who they are and what they are doing on their behalf.

What should they understand? First, they should break the habit of military worship. Service members are not the incredibly selfless saints that internet memes would have them believe, nor are they necessarily the paragons of Christian virtue some media members paint them as.

They don’t all fit into entertainment-industry stereotypes. They are not all tough guys with hearts of gold, nor are they traumatized war machines out of place in civilian culture. They are the same Americans found in every one of our hometowns, with all the virtues and vices inherent in our culture.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, civilians should understand that the military deserves no one’s condescension. In the early 1970s, when the U.S. began its experiment with an all-volunteer force, proponents of the draft said only the country’s dregs would serve if it were left to individual choice.

I disagree. The modern U.S. military is a profession on par with medical practice, the application of jurisprudence, and civil governance. But if you don’t believe my opinion, consider the public’s: a 2013 Pew poll reported that 78 percent of American adults deem the military to contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being, ranking higher than scientists, political leaders, business executives, even the clergy.

And about those supposed “dregs”: Only an approximate 1 in 100 enlisted members aged 18 to 24 lacks a high school degree, compared with 1 in 5 in the general population of the same range. Every commissioned officer past the rank of captain has at least a bachelor’s degree, and many hold master’s degrees and doctorates.

Of course, military men and women are subject to all the failings and shortcomings innate to man. However, they are also members of a profession noble enough to inspire respect even in their foes.

There are ways to do this relationship right: when I was a graduate student at the Command and General Staff College in Leavenworth, Kansas, I met a civilian who really got it, and her name has stuck with me since: Ms. Shae Koonce.

I was the yearbook editor (yes, even Army grad schools have yearbook clubs) and Shae owned a photography studio. For years, she offered free portrait services to every student and editors like me used the pictures for the yearbook.

This wasn’t a token veterans’ discount or a free appetizer on Thursdays, as nice as those gestures are. Shae took the time to find out who each service member was as a person. She connected with her customers. She recognized they weren’t comic-book Spartans or bloodthirsty warmongers or dropouts unfit for the civilian world.

She was a well-informed, undeluded partner who saw her clients as ordinary people whose job, once in a while, was to do extraordinary things.

That is what the military needs. Its members have no use for cheerleaders, and they do not warrant detractors.

What they deserve, what a true republic demands, is understanding, appreciation and belonging.

Army Maj. L. Burton Brender is a native of Cashmere, Washington. He is the co-author of In Cadence and an active member of the Military Writers Guild. Follow him at his blog, Swords & Pens.

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