The Day after Veteran’s Day

It seems apropos that I should be writing a column after Veteran’s Day because this is a discussion of the “after” (military service) that many military servicemembers face. To this end, we ought to try to consider who veterans are and why they are different that those in the civilian population.

Their time in the military is probably the seminal event in a veteran’s life. It marks who they were and what they have become. Quite literally, they are forged into soldiers, sailors, and airmen as a consequence of that experience. Basic Training is a process that has been honed over literally thousands of years. It is designed to break the individual down, that person who is focused on their own well-being. At some point, they realize that they can’t do it alone. They must begin relying on their comrades. From that point they are “forged” into a cohesive unit where the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts.

In addition, they develop an intimacy of relationships that cannot be fathomed by those who have not experienced it. How do you describe the love of another person so great that you would sacrifice your life for them…without even thinking about it (and they for you).

In this respect, perhaps the most traumatic experience in the transition “out” is the loss of their “tribe.”  (a distinctive or close-knit group with a shared culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader). This defines a military organization, particularly small close-knit units where interactions are “up close and personal.” Regardless of race, creed, color, or previous social-economic background, they become part of a “whole” shaped by the sum of their collective experiences, very often dangerous (even deadly) and physically and mentally trying.

Within this intimate group, everyone has a role, and each of those (no matter how seemingly trivial or mundane) is a key component of the unit’s success. For example, in a rifle squad, the guy who can hump (carry) more ammo than anyone else can be critical in a firefight where modern rapid-fire weapons can chew threw hundreds of rounds in minutes. That person may be the only one who can haul a fully burdened comrade to safety. At the critical moment, it doesn’t get any more important than that.

The aphorism that war is “months of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror” manifests itself as periods of hyper-awareness and “adrenaline rush” followed by an emotional crash when an operation is over. Cycle that over and over during a period of combat deployment. Does that sound like it might affect their mental health?

Do we really wonder why our soldiers come home very different than when they left? They carry memories they may wish to forget but cannot. Often, these are experiences that only another soldier can understand.

And so, this soldier with all the baggage accumulated during their time in uniform, is deactivated and returns home full of hope and stories. His old buddies have jobs and families. The economy may not be so hot. The list of skills on their resume’ is superb (for a warrior), but not so relevant for the civilian world. They may get menial work, or perhaps a customer service job with remote working. Either way, they are likely not closely tied to their coworkers. More important, they have lost much of their relevance.

We all need meaning and that is context-based. In the previous environment they were recognized members of the team, a key part of the efficient operation of the organization. Today, they may be just a cog in the machine, a fungible part, easy to replace. It is no longer a world of meritocracy. The prejudices based on superficial characteristics (color of one’s skin) reappear. Character and merit are often outweighed by office politics.

What must this soldier (airman, sailor or marine) think of this country for which they sacrificed. True, people say “Thank you for your service” when he get’s his military discount at the store. But all too often that has become a rote response (like “Bless you” when you sneeze). As the immediacy of the recent 20-years of war recedes, our interest in the problems of military service likewise fades.

What obligations do we as a country have to those that have sacrificed (whether in combat or simply long deployments)? Do we “owe” them more than a debt of gratitude (which doesn’t help pay the bills or mitigate emotional trauma)? Should they get preferential treatment in hiring? Should they get special attention when dealing with homelessness or addiction? These are they symptoms we must treat, but more important, we need to address the underlying condition: the loss of place and meaning.

Above all else, we need to find a way to rebuild a society that has stronger ties between people, employees and employers, and critically, between government and the governed. This is key to building the bonds that will allow not just veterans, but all the citizenry find a productive place in society where they feel they “belong.” Until we crack this code, everything we do will simply be putting band-aides on the problem.

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