There was an ad on TV during a break in Thursday night’s NFL game. A man identified as Ty Pennington was addressing the audience directly, making a charity pitch for disadvantaged families. I wasn’t really following the message, but something in it—some disconnect between the images and the words—kept drawing my attention. Here’s what the man was saying:
“I want to tell you a story about a little girl. A little girl who’s going to wake up on Christmas morning and her daddy won’t be there. But will Christmas be there? Will she have a warm jacket to wear? Will she have shoes that fit? Or even a toy?”
And it took me a while to realize that the narrator wasn’t talking about victims of a disaster or orphans in some distant, impoverished country. This Ty Pennington was talking about the children of active-service military personnel. The missing daddy was in Afghanistan. It was an ad for a Sears charity program called the “Heroes at Home Wish Registry.” Viewers were being encouraged to send gift cards to the children of military personnel.
And I was puzzled. Why do the children of active troops have no coats or shoes? Why are they pining away for a toy this Christmas? So I did something I almost never do. I got up and looked up the ad online. I couldn’t find the commercial on the Sears gift registry website. I had to go to YouTube to find it. But I did find out that the charity function of the program isn’t limited to active-duty personnel. Veterans are also eligible to receive gift cards through the charity. In fact, the site features this statement, in a bold-type callout: “New veterans can face unemployment rates higher than those facing non-veterans.”
Because I was watching a football game, I didn’t have to wait long to see one of the TV ads in the massive “Go Army” campaign. The NFL’s target demographic—young, male, middle class, struggling to get by in our latest job-shedding recession—is tailor-made for armed forces recruitment. The games are often sponsored by the US Army or Marines, and the ads run during virtually every break in the action.
You won’t hear anything about the apparently dismal employment situation facing newly returned vets in these “Go Army” ads. You won’t hear about the surprising number of families of active-duty troops who qualify for food stamps. You certainly won’t hear about charity programs intended to help army families get through the holidays. Instead, these relentlessly upbeat advertisements position volunteer service in the armed forces as a means of self-empowerment, as a pathway to a meaningful and well-paid career, either in the service or in private life.
There are plenty of aspects of army life that are not glamorous. The danger, the stress, the boredom, the isolation. Given all the responsibilities and drawbacks that come with it, you would think that a job in the Army would at least pay a decent living wage that would enable you to put a coat on your kid’s back.
Look, we all have our own opinions about the relative value of America’s many military ventures around the globe. Some people believe that “freedom isn’t free,” and that if we don’t fight our enemies “over there,” we’ll have to fight them “over here.” Some believe that all warfare not conducted in immediate defense against an invasion of one’s homeland is immoral. Some take a longer and more expansive view of what constitutes “national defense.”
But we all support the troops.
By the reckoning of our own Congressional Budget Office (CBO), America’s military budget is almost equal to the combined military budget of every other country on earth. US military spending in 2008 totaled $711 billion. The rest of the world combined spent $762 billion.
Too bad there’s nothing in that $711 billion for a kid’s coat. Or a toy.