Saturday is Armed Forces Day, one of the few occasions when we throw open our gates and welcome our neighbors on post. I hope those who visit take time to talk to the Soldiers they see, because I fear that, for many Americans, the men and women in uniform are mysteries.

Despite the fact that we are engaged in one of the longest conflicts in our nation's history, with stories about the Army filling the news every day, most Americans still lack a personal connection with the military. They fill in the gaps with preconceived notions about Soldiers ... and they are often wrong. That is true even in communities right outside the gates of any Army post.

There is an unfortunate tendency to take the worst of what Soldiers do and project that behavior onto all men and women in uniform. When a Soldier commits a crime, it doesn't seem to be viewed as the aberration it is, but as evidence of falling standards in enlistments. Negative news always seems to be accepted as the norm rather than the exception.

I would like to look every American in the face and tell him the truth. Our Soldiers aren't just a cross section of the rest of the country, they are better than that. Soldiers are better educated, smarter, healthier, more willing to volunteer, readier to help their neighbors, better parents, better citizens on average, than the general population.

I don't mean that there aren't great people in all walks of life in our country. But, Soldiers are not a reflection of society; they represent the best of America.

It wasn't always that way. When I enlisted in the Army in 1976, the average recruit was a high school dropout. Many had rather shady backgrounds. Drug use and crime were rampant. But even then there were good leaders intent on turning things around, and they succeeded.

I remember some of the thugs and knuckleheads I served with, back in the day. Those memories are starkly contrasted when I talk to Soldiers now. I am always amazed at how smart today's troops are.

They are faced with a far more complex world, with far more difficult missions than those of decades past, yet they overcome those challenges superbly. There are still some jerks who slip through into uniform, but the vast majority of Soldiers are bright, likable, honorable young men and women.

I want the rest of America to know that.

Our leaders are better than most Americans realize, too. I sometimes think that most of America gets its knowledge of Army leaders by watching re-runs of old "M*A*S*H" episodes. There seems little appreciation for the qualities represented by our officers. They are far more professional than most Americans recognize.

As a group, our officers form one of the smartest, most educated career groups in American society. Almost every career officer holds at least a master's degree. Who compares in civilian society' Doctors, lawyers, certified public accountants' That 1960s era joke about Army intelligence being a contradiction in terms lost any connection to reality a long time ago. Army leaders are smart, imaginative, dedicated.

I want the rest of America to know that, too.

Armed Forces Day was created as an occasion for Americans to honor those in uniform. It has grown into a day when we can reintroduce Americans to those who volunteer to wear their nation's uniforms.

I am proud to have served as a Soldier. I am prouder still of those serving today. I hope all those who visit on Saturday feel the same way.

David W. Kuhns Sr., is a retired Army sergeant major and editor of Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.