This Memorial Day weekend, young Americans will head to the beach and celebrate the beginning of summer with family and friends. Many will fail to reflect on our wars in Afghanistan or Iraq and ignore the costs of these wars on young people. A decade after 9/11, our generation has yet to recognize that there is nothing collective about the sacrifices being made in Afghanistan and Iraq; older generations have championed these wars, while bearing little human toll and none of the financial burden. Americans under 30 have suffered the majority of casualties and combat injuries and will bear the entire financial cost for the past decade of war.
Our generation is the one going to war. Sixty percent of the active duty force is 30 years old or younger and the average enlistment age in the Army is 22 years old. In the average 80-soldier platoon in the Marine Corps, 30 soldiers are between the ages of 18-21. Instead of attending college like the majority of their peers, young Americans are leaving for Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps we are fooled by the images of older politicians and generals who serve as the wars’ spokesmen. They may be the face of these wars, but they are not fighting; we are.
Our generation is dying on the battlefield. Of the 6,036 casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, 53% have been under 24 years old – that’s equivalent to the entire graduating class at USC. Even though these figures are lower than in Vietnam, for each casualty 16 soldiers are seriously wounded. Imagine the entire undergraduate population of Boston University – that’s how many soldiers under the age of 25 are wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq. The most likely causes of life-changing injuries are explosive devises (IEDs, grenades, and mortars) for wounded soldiers in their early 20s. The data suggests that over 85,000 Americans under 25 have returned with PTSD – that’s almost equivalent to a capacity crowd at the Rose Bowl. We are serving and dying. We are coming home forever changed.
Only our generation will be responsible for paying for these wars. Since 2002, we’ve spent an average of $120 billion a year on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, all during years of national deficits at the expense of growing national debt. That is double our federal expenditure on education over the same period. The total cost of these wars allocated to Congress is $1.25 trillion – $806 billion to Iraq and $444 billion to Afghanistan. These wars have added $10,850 of debt to each of the 115 million Americans between 5 and 30 years old. The older generation championed these wars, but hasn’t spent a single dollar out of its pocket to pay for them. We’ve been left to foot the bill.
The sad truth is that our generation has not realized that the costs of our recent wars fall on us. We barely pay attention to this fundamental injustice, and older leaders know we won’t take a stand. So on this holiday weekend, don’t be fooled by messages of collective sacrifice; for American under 30, sacrifice in Afghanistan and Iraq has been completely one-sided.
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