Part of honoring our veterans is serving them when they return to civilian life.
“Sam Stone came home
To his wife and family
After serving in the conflict overseas.
And the time that he served,
Had shattered all his nerves,
And left a little shrapnel in his knee…”—John Prine
Today is Veteran’s Day and we’ll honor it with parades, speeches and memorials of many times. This is entirely appropriate, given the sacrifice of our soldiers.
But there is something that concerns me about this pageantry. I must choose my words carefully. A couple of years ago, MSNBC host Chris Hayes ignited a firestorm of criticism with his quite nuanced comments about his discomfort with the word hero in describing fallen soldiers. He ended up backtracking within days and apologizing.
Hayes expressed worry that the ubiquitous use of the word hero had a tendency to shut down debate and that in our patriotic zeal, we might not question the next war, justified or not. That seems like a legitimate concern to me.
My apprehension is not with whether we honor veterans, but how and more specifically, the effect it has on them as they return to civilian life.
We put members of our military on a pedestal and call them heroes. The honor they receive is deserved as they make a great sacrifice on our behalf, though most of us know that their decisions are often more pragmatic than heroic.
But as they return, veterans are facing obstacles often bigger than those they faced on the battlefield. A study by the Department of Veterans Affairs showed that over the twelve year period from 1999 to 2010, an average of 22 veterans per day committed suicide. In the year 2012 alone, 6,500 veterans took their own lives, more than the entire US death toll from the Iraq War in total. The rate of suicide among veterans is roughly twice that of the population as a whole.
There are many reasons for this, including depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition often misunderstood and underdiagnosed, especially among veterans.
In a rare act of bipartisanship and unanimity earlier this year, congress passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act. Upon signing it, President Obama called the issue “a national mission.”
The Clay Hunt Act will, among other things, require third party evaluations of the mental health and suicide prevention programs run by the VA, create a web site that will serve as a centralized repository for VA mental health services, and require collaboration between the VA and non-profit mental health organizations.
But we must also ask ourselves not only why such services are needed among veterans at a higher rate, but why so many aren’t seeking the services they need. This is why I challenge the pedestal upon which we place members of our military.
While in areas of combat, the mystique of invincibility may serve soldiers well. The cult of masculinity–which impacts both male and female soldiers–requires a refusal to admit vulnerability or fear even in the face of very real danger. In the midst of that danger, this might well be a valuable coping mechanism as it allows for soldiers to do their jobs in situations many of us might find impossible.
But civilian life is quite different. Veterans often return to a society not only questioning the wars in which they found a sense of purpose, but a lack of opportunities in the job market. Despite recruiter rhetoric, many military jobs have no civilian counterpart and soldiers return with few marketable skills and a need for retraining. In the classroom and at college in general, we’re finding that veterans are unwilling at times even to identify themselves and seek out services to which they are entitled. Asking for help is too often seen as a sign of weakness in the military and this attitude, once ingrained, is difficult to overcome.
We need to move past the viewing of veterans as superhuman heroes and see them for who they are: human women and men who have served us well. If you want to help them, don’t just thank them for their service. Treat them like you’d treat anyone else. Help them find ways to give their lives purpose as it had while they were in service.
And even as we honor them, do so while looking them eye to eye, shaking their hands, not looking up at them on a pedestal.
—A version of this piece also appeared in the Porterville Recorder on November 11th, 2015.