Veterans Day honors those who served. Now we need to look to the next generation of warriors | Opinion

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By Thomas J. Wilson III

“Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men.”

The nature of war may have changed since Gen. George S. Patton wrote those famous words, but the principle remains the same. No matter what we invest in weapons and technology, the men and women wearing the uniforms of our nation deliver the resourcefulness and skill that keeps America safe.

On this Veterans’ Day, we honor those who serve, but it’s also a time to cast our vision ahead to those who might someday serve.

Unfortunately, here is where we see potential problems. Like employers throughout Pennsylvania and nationwide, the U.S. military strains to draw recruits from an increasingly depleted workforce.

Low unemployment has created a hiring crunch, complicated for the military by the fact that nearly three out of four young Pennsylvanians do not qualify for military service due to educational deficiencies, health or fitness issues, or a criminal record.

If we do not address this eligibility problem and expand the readiness of young people, will we have the sufficient pool of talented recruits needed to serve in our military in the future?  Will private sector employers have a sufficient pool of talented applicants needed to fill their labor force?

The retired admirals and generals of Mission: Readiness recommend a solution – investing in our young people today to better ensure the readiness of workers and service members tomorrow.

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The starting place is to ensure greater access to high-quality child care and early education programs like pre-k. Research is clear that brain development from birth to age 5 sets the foundation for children’s future success. During these years, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second. This early foundation sets the stage for children’s cognitive ability, health and behavior throughout life.

The next step is to ensure that all students have the opportunity for a quality K-12 education, regardless of zip code, where these foundational skills can mature.  Students should have access to smaller classes where more individualized instruction is possible, access to diverse academic offerings including STEM and Career and Technical Education, and access to critical lab, computer and other equipment that is so pervasive in our modern workforce.

Unfortunately, our public investments in our young people have not kept pace with the need.  Many Pennsylvania families struggle to find and afford high-quality child care options for their children and more than 95,000 eligible 3- and 4-year-olds don’t have access to publicly-funded pre-k programs like Pre-K Counts and Head Start.

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Added, too many young Pennsylvanians attend public K-12 schools that lack adequate resources to ensure a quality education. In fact, Pennsylvania is home to the widest per-pupil spending gap in the nation between wealthy and poor school districts.

Furthermore, Pennsylvania ranks third overall in the statewide percent of children attending severely financially disadvantaged districts, behind only Illinois and New Hampshire. Our state’s over-reliance on local property taxes to fund public education has drastically limited poorer communities’ ability to adequately fund their schools.

Our economic and national security suffers when the workforce is strained, but we can reverse course. Increased public investment in high-quality early care and education programs as well as equitable and adequate K-12 funding for all Pennsylvania schools are “pipeline” investments in workforce (and military) readiness.

For Veterans’ Day 2019, let’s honor our veterans by committing to investments sure to instill in young people the qualities they will need both in the workforce and in service to this great nation if they so choose.

Rear Adm. Thomas J. Wilson III (U.S. Navy, Ret’d) is a member of the executive advisory council of Mission: Readiness – Military Leaders for Kids. He writes from Biglerville, Pa.