In Afghanistan and Iraq, the wire ringing our bases divided two starkly different worlds. Inside the wire, life revolved around containerized housing units, cavernous dining facilities, well-appointed gyms and the distant but ever-present risk of a falling rocket or mortar round. Outside the wire, Afghans and Iraqis tried to live their lives amid relative chaos. They didn't fully understand what we were doing there. And when we ventured out, we struggled to navigate their world.
The wire defines a similar divide in the United States. Inside, troops and their families live and work on massive military bases, separated geographically, socially and economically from the society they serve. Outside, Americans live and work, largely unaware of the service and sacrifice of the 2.4 million active and reserve troops. Discussions of the civil-military divide often blame civilians. But the military's self-imposed isolation doesn't encourage civilian understanding, and it makes it difficult for veterans and their families to navigate the outside world.
The U.S. military's domestic bases are the nation's most exclusive gated communities. There's restricted access, of course, and visitors are usually asked to provide multiple forms of ID and to submit to a car search before entering. Through the gates, there's a remarkably self-contained world. Roughly a third of military families live on bases, with many more living just outside the wire in military enclaves. About 100,000 military children attend on-base schools. Military families shop at discounted grocery and department stores, see dedicated doctors and pharmacists, leave their children in military-subsidized child care, and play in base sports leagues. Many bases have their own golf courses, gyms and gas stations. Some have their own cemeteries, too.
The geographic isolation of military bases divides the services from society. The military increasingly concentrates itself on large bases nowhere near major population centers. Rural settings afford vast ranges and runways for training purposes, but they limit opportunities for interaction with civilians. City-dwellers, including the nation's political and business elites, may rarely see service members in uniform - perpetuating the military's tendency to draw recruits from rural, Southern and Western populations. And when jobs are scarce in the communities surrounding bases, it makes the transition of veterans out of the military especially difficult.