The U.S. should redouble its efforts in teaching service values to young people, according to retired U.S. Army Col. and Medal of Honor recipient Jack Jacobs.
Less than 1 percent of Americans are serving in today's military, despite the nation facing worldwide threats and obligations, he said at Tuesday's celebration of valor luncheon at the Chattanooga Convention Center, where he was a special guest speaker.
"Most Americans do not know anybody in uniform," Jacobs said, noting that years ago, not knowing someone in service was almost unheard of.
He said he thinks the country may one day regret not having a national draft in place, as the number of enlisted men and women is slowly falling to the lowest its been since the 1940s.
With dwindling numbers of servicemen and women, Jacobs, who currently serves as a military analyst for NBC News, said he thinks the U.S. may not have the influence it needs to defend its interests and the interests of its allies against growing forces like China.
"Our force projection is not what it used to be," he said. "... We are spread fairly thinly around the world. We have troops who go on multiple deployments because we have insufficient numbers of people to actually perform the many missions we need to."
The decision to use more technology to defend the country rather than humans has also contributed to the shrinking number of armed forces, Jacobs said. Machines can be substituted up to a certain point, but it's much easier and takes less resources to take objectives than to hold on to them, he said.
"You may be able to knock out the bad guys for a short period of time with drones that fire precision-guided munition up either the right or the left nostril of some bad guy," he said. "But at the end of the day, if we can't actually hold on to the objective, then we're not doing very well at all."
With fewer and fewer enlisted men and women, the values that drove previous generations to serve is lost to young people today, he said. Which is why, he said, the Medal of Honor Foundation started a character development program in order to reach as many kids as possible "to get them the kinds of values that make this country great."
The program teaches children six character traits of Medal of Honor recipients -- courage, commitment, sacrifice, patriotism, integrity and citizenship.
"Unless we can inculcate in young people those same values, then all the service and sacrifice of those people will be in vain," Jacobs said. "You're not grown up until you realize that it's not about you. It's about something much larger than you. And we have to work really hard to convince the next generation of that."
Tuesday's luncheon benefited the operational costs of the Charles H. Coolidge Medal of Honor Heritage Center, which supports the character development program in Chattanooga.
Bill Raines, a retired U.S. Army major general and the center's chairman, said the program also aims to teach children the difference between moral and physical courage.
"You got to have physical, but moral courage is just as important and more frequently needed, either to get someone to stop bullying somebody, to not be the silent person, but to speak up," he said. "Sometimes your silence can be more dangerous than speaking up."
Luncheon attendees were also able to donate to the center's capital campaign to build a new heritage center in downtown Chattanooga next to the Tennessee Aquarium.
So far, the center has raised $2.65 million of its $3 million goal for 2018.
The center, once finished, will feature interactive and immersive war exhibits that can be a teaching aid to educate children and adults on American history, Raines said.
"It's important to teach [history], not for what it is, necessarily, but for what it represents," Jacobs said. "It's not enough to know that it happened. It's important enough to know what actually happened there and why it happened and what were the results of it."
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