In Pensacola, Fla., it’s bigger than Memorial Day, the Fourth of
July, and Labor Day all rolled into one. It’s an event that brings not
only the natives out; it brings people from all over the United States.
It’s the twice-yearly aerial show put on by the Navy’s Blue Angels,
whose home is Pensacola Naval Air Station.
In the middle of the heat wave of 2000, almost a hundred thousand
people swarmed the beaches, made the long bridges going down to the Gulf
a huge parking lot, and anchored side by side in all the bays and coves
around Pensacola Beach. At approximately 2:30 in the hot afternoon sun,
Fat Albert, a TC-130 Hercules, flew down the beach and then went up
towards the sun at a 45 degree angle propelled by Jet Assisted Take-Off
capability. It was an awesome sight to see that huge airplane scream up
to the heavens defying gravity and logic.
Shortly after Fat Albert’s intro act, four Blue Angels screamed
across the beach in perfect formation looking as if their wingtips were
touching. As the air show went on these amazing Naval aviators put their
F/A-18′s through aerobatics that put a lump in your throat and make you
proud to be an American taxpayer funding this display of excellence. The
final act is when all six Blue Angels start from different points of the
compass and fly towards one another. At the last second each airplane
veers off in a loop that takes aviator and airplane out of harm’s way.
It’s even better than the ending to the Fourth of July Fireworks and,
even though the aviators are long gone, the beaches exploded in
In my lifetime I have lived through both boom and bust of respect for
our nation’s military. As a very young child growing up during World War
II, I guess I was indoctrinated with the notion that soldiers and
sailors were to be respected, if not revered. As a young adult I was
shocked and mortified that my brother and his generation of young men,
who served in Vietnam, were not given the proper respect for their
gallantry and bravery in fighting a very unpopular war.
I remember vividly the night that the Allies began bombing Baghdad. I
was working late with the radio on and around 9 p.m. the national anthem
began playing, while the announcer told us that the Gulf War had really
begun. The radio station then proceeded to play patriotic songs for
several hours interrupted only by bombing news updates. The theme that
night was as nationalistic as I had ever heard. Yet at the same time
there were sobering overtones, as everyone knew that many of America’s
finest young men and women would be put in harm’s way.
Now it is almost 10 years later and most Americans still value the
excellence and skill of these Navy Aviators. In fact, when the “Big E,”
U.S.S. Enterprise, the first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, visited
Pensacola last spring the outpouring of interest and support from the
general public shocked the Navy. During the weekend the Big E was in
port over 320,000 Americans stood in long lines for the chance to visit
this great ship and in the process boosted the morale of the sailors.
The Navy, as well as all the entire Department of Defense, has been
suffering from low and ever-declining morale over the last eight years.
Since our servicemen came back from Desert Storm, the American military
has been on a decline, not only in numbers but also in esprit de corps.
Under the Clinton-Gore administration our military has been downsized
by approximately 40 percent. And it’s not only a reduction in service
personnel, the U.S. Navy now has 40 percent less ships, submarines, and
aircraft. As a result we don’t have an aircraft carrier battlegroup
stationed full-time in strategic locations such as the Middle East or
near Taiwan. The Navy now allows a period of 30-60 days of non-coverage
to allow a battlegroup to replace another. The period when a battle
group is not physically on station but being replaced goes under the new
military nomenclature of “tethering.”
Navy aviators, the same ones that try out for the Blue Angels, are
being asked to go back out to sea without the normal shore duty and
training time they have had in the past. As a result they are burning
out and many are quitting to go into easier and more lucrative civilian
jobs in the airline industry. And as more and more quit the burden on
the remaining aviators keeps escalating.
Our Navy and our military have had over a decade of being asked to do
more with less and less. In 1990 the Democratic Congress passed the
Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act of 1990, which set up an
independent Base Closure and Realignment Commission. It was heralded as
a way of helping the military cut its budget. It began slowly with
smaller, non-essential bases being shut down and then escalated so that
“The 1988, 1991, and 1993 base closure rounds have resulted in more than
70 major, and almost 200 smaller,
closings.” In 1995, the Commission’s final year, it recommended an additional “closure or realignment of 132 military installations in the United States.”
The military base closures not only were designed to save the Department of Defense millions in operating costs, but also approximately 12 percent in both military and civilian personnel costs. But that wasn’t enough for the Clinton Administration. In the past five years there has been even more attrition. As morale has dropped with every indiscretion by the Commander in Chief, military recruitment has fallen to an all time low and officers and non-commissioned officers who can retire at twenty years are leaving in droves. Even for many that embarked on military careers in the last decade and now are at the halfway point of their chosen work the attrition rate is skyrocketing. Thus the only battle-tested veterans in the military are the ones who served in Desert Storm and if these people don’t quit for better jobs in the private sector, they will be ready for retirement before the end of this decade. This scenario could leave the United States with a military far below strength as the first decade of the 21st century ends.
If you ask 9 out of 10 servicemen they will tell you it’s not the pay, it’s a question of morale. They complain about the lack of integrity in their Commander-in-Chief and deplore his double standard. They don’t think that the missions they are being sent on Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo are in the spirit of oath they took: “to defend the U.S. Constitution against enemies both foreign and domestic.” They know they are undermanned, are being asked to do the job of two or more, and have less and less time to spend with their families. And finally they don’t believe anyone cares: neither the Congress, nor the commander in chief, not even the American people.
That’s why it’s refreshing to see the outpouring for the Blue Angels and to hear about the thousands that lined up to visit the “Big E.” After all it’s our military: our sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, and neighbors. It’s time we said thank you for a job well done, under extremely trying circumstances. Let’s hope the next president treats them with the respect they deserve. After all, they are our first and last lines of defense … they need our support.