Conventional wisdom dictates that because only 1 percent of Americans serve in the military, the cultural divide between troops and civilians is the worst it's even been.
But that statistic isn't unique to this generation, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told an audience at the Army and Navy Club in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, and it's important that soldiers not only make an effort to reach out to civilians, but that they keep their egos in check.
"Most Americans get their view of the military from movies, from the news, hearsay, from watching whatever, rather than personal understanding or connection with soldiers," he said. "In some ways, people say, only 1 percent of Americans wear the uniform — that's actually the norm in American history."
It's the result of an all-volunteer military, he said, but service rates have also been very low throughout U.S. history outside of high-draft periods like the Civil War and World War II.
Still, he added, having a professional military has created a subculture that civilians aren't always familiar with.
It's been a topic of countless think pieces, including a book by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
"I believe, Mark Milley believes, the burden’s on us — the guys in uniform — to make sure that we really reach out beyond just what’s on the news and TV," he said. "That we reach out to communities and we let the people know who we are and what we do and what we’re about."
At an organizational level, that can come with community outreach. But not just in the immediate areas around posts, he said.
Rather than Fort Hood soldiers sticking to Killeen, Texas, he said, they should try to get out all over Texas and up to Oklahoma, visiting schools, marching in parades and visiting first responders, as well as bringing students on post to show them what being a soldier is like.
"Be seen. We absorb an enormous amount of money from the American taxpayer," he said. "The American people deserve to see what they’re getting for their money, and they ought to get to know their military. And I think the burden of exposing ourselves is on us."
It's also key, he said, to stay humble about it.
"We shouldn’t run around saying, ‘Oh, too bad you couldn’t join the 1 percent,’ or something like that," he said. "We have to be careful that we don’t develop a certain arrogance about being in the military, that somehow we are distinct and above the society that we protect."
He's observed that in other countries, he said, where troops see themselves as an elite group separate from the people they serve.
"I like to use the term ‘The People’s Army,'" he said. "We are not some sort of super warrior class. We are of the people, by the people, and for the people."
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.