August 23, 2005 -- WHAT was the big "Iraq" story in August? Which vital issue got the most air-time and ink? The camp-out of a sad, tormented woman who had lost her son, her marriage and her judgment.
The media pounced on poor Cindy Sheehan in an anti-Bush, anti-war frenzy. The disappointment was obvious when she decided to go home.
What should have made headlines? It would've been nice to see more attention devoted to the complexity and importance of drafting a new constitution for Iraq. But my nomination for the "Greatest Story Never Told" is a quieter one: Locked in a difficult war, the U.S. Army is exceeding its re-enlistment and first-time enlistment goals. Has anybody mentioned that to you?
Remember last spring, when the Army's recruitment efforts fell short for a few months? The media's glee would have made you confuse the New York Times and Air America.
When the Army attempted to explain that enlistments are cyclical and numbers dip at certain times of the year, the media ignored it. All that mattered was the wonderful news that the Army couldn't find enough soldiers. We were warned, in oh-so-solemn tones, that our military was headed for a train wreck.
Now, as the fiscal year nears an end, the Army's numbers look great. Especially in combat units and Iraq, soldiers are re-enlisting at record levels. And you don't hear a whisper about it from the "mainstream media."
Let's look at the numbers, which offer a different picture of patriotism than the editorial pages do.
* Every one of the Army's 10 divisions — its key combat organizations — has exceeded its re-enlistment goal for the year to date. Those with the most intense experience in Iraq have the best rates. The 1st Cavalry Division is at 136 percent of its target, the 3rd Infantry Division at 117 percent.
Among separate combat brigades, the figures are even more startling, with the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division at 178 percent of its goal and the 3rd Brigade of the 4th Mech right behind at 174 percent of its re-enlistment target.
This is unprecedented in wartime. Even in World War II, we needed the draft. Where are the headlines?
* What about first-time enlistment rates, since that was the issue last spring? The Army is running at 108 percent of its needs. Guess not every young American despises his or her country and our president.
* The Army Reserve is a tougher sell, given that it takes men and women away from their families and careers on short notice. Well, Reserve recruitment stands at 102 percent of requirements.
* And then there's the Army National Guard. We've been told for two years that the Guard was in free-fall. Really? Guard recruitment and retention comes out to 106 percent of its requirements as of June 30. (I've even heard a rumor that Al Franken and Tim Robbins signed up — but let's wait for confirmation on that.)
Of course, we'll hear stammering about an "army of mercenaries"— naive, uneducated kids lured by the promise of big retention bonuses. That's another lie told by the elite to excuse themselves from serving our country in uniform.
The young men and women who have been through the crucible of combat — often on repeated deployments — are hardly naive. Their education levels exceed the American average. And, as of Aug. 2, the Army had spent a 2005 total of only $347 million on Selective Re-enlistment Bonuses — that's weekend walking-around money for America's Fortune 500 CEOs.
Big bucks for risking your life? Not hardly. Only 60 percent of soldiers get any re-enlistment bonus. For the overwhelming number whose skills merit an extra incentive, bonuses runs between $6,000 and $12,400 per year of contracted service — per year of facing death, wounds, separation from family and uncertainty as to whether you'll ever see that family again.
A total of 643 soldiers with very special capabilities, from special operators to doctors, got an average payment of $57,000 — a fraction of what the private sector offers them for doing the same jobs at far less risk.
No, they don't do it for the money.
Guess we have to face it: Patriotism is alive and well. Soldiers believe in the Army, and they believe in their missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. They love their comrades, too. And yes, the word is "love." They would die for the man or woman serving beside them. They're risking their lives to save a broken state, to give tens of millions of human beings a chance at decent lives, to do the grim work that no one else in the world is willing to do.
Their reward? The Cindy Sheehan Extravaganza. Predictions of disaster. The depiction of Michael Moore as a hero and our soldiers as dupes. And a ceaseless attempt to convince the American people that there's no hope in Iraq.
The ugly truth is that much of the media only cares about our soldiers when they're dead or crippled. That's a story.
As you read this, 500,000 soldiers are on active duty because they chose to serve their country. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of Reservists and Guard members have been called into uniform. And they're all behaving as true soldiers do: Running toward the sound of the guns, not away from them.
We should be humbled by their choices, honored by their sacrifices, and proud of what they're fighting to achieve. Instead of the jerk's refrain "Support our troops, bring them home," the line should run "Support our troops, make their home worthy of them."
Our young men and women in uniform — in every service — deserve far better than we've given them.