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Over two hundred retired generals and admirals have banded together to call attention to the alarming consequences of our failure to care adequately for this nation’s children. Mission: Readiness reports that 75% of the young adults who, in the past, have been the most likely to join the military are “unfit to serve” because of poor education, obesity, or a criminal record. Given the high numbers of foster youth who fail to graduate from high school, spend time in jail, and suffer multiple serious health problems, including obesity, it is sadly safe to assume that they are overrepresented in the group of those who are not eligible for military service.

We should all be concerned about the implications for the individuals who make up this sobering statistic. As taxpayers, we should be alarmed that our failure to invest in our children’s health and education has not only jeopardized these lives, but also our national defense. As citizens, we should be ashamed that the children we have promised to care for when their parents can’t are among those who are unable to serve their country. This is not an argument that our armed services should be staffed by those who grow up in the foster care system. It is an argument that when we step in as surrogate parents we make an implicit promise to give foster children basic health care and education.

We owe them care that prepares them for a full range of adult choices.

debris-cleanup_lPhoto Courtesy of “US Army”

When foster youth are unable to serve in the military they are cut off from one avenue of educational opportunities. They also forego the opportunity to benefit from the intangible skills — such as leadership, teamwork, and resource management — that are integral to military life and can translate into success in civilian life. When foster children are unable to serve in the military, they are deprived of one important choice of citizenship — a chance to serve and defend their county.

Over 20,000 youth age out of foster care each year.
If only 5,000 of them can meet the minimum requirements for military service, we have deprived 15,000 citizens of important opportunities and our country of a substantial pool of young adults who might want to pursue the military option. By implication, we have also deprived our country of many other contributions from youth who want to enhance our economy and our culture in significant and satisfying ways but are unequipped to do so.

The retired military leaders who are leading the readiness cause have a long view of what is at stake and what it takes to develop well-prepared armed services. We should heed their wisdom; they have studied war and fought to bring us peace. They tell us that we must not delay in addressing the shortage of military personnel and that we must do this today by meeting the immediate health and educational needs of very young children if we want them to be prepared to serve in the future.

Preparing children for the future begins today.

By Toni Heineman