Support for Veterans Needs to go farther
I noticed the man in Army gear, desert pattern, his boots laced tight, midsized-rucksack on his back waiting at the airline gate. He stood still, waited, and stared out the window. While he waited at least three people approached him to say, “Thanks for your service.” He accepted the comments graciously, but did not pick up opportunities to chat. Moments later the gate agent announced that anyone in uniform was welcome to board the plane with the first class cabin. He remained still. He waited.
I boarded the Canada-Air Regional Jet with two-and-two seating and took an aisle seat. Then I went through my drill of getting out my reading material, my water bottle, and my ear plugs. I like to send the “Please don’t talk to me” signal early to my yet-to-arrive seat-mate. If you fly a lot you know why; I’m not being rude, but please don’t chat with me through the flight. I relish a quiet flight.
Moments later the man in uniform tapped my seat to indicate he had the window. After he got situated, he stared out the window. He didn’t want to talk either. During the flight two more people leaned over and got his attention to thank him for his service. Each time he smiled and said, “Thank you.” I asked him why he didn’t board early; he said “Nah, doesn’t make sense. I just board when I’m supposed to.” We took off. He didn’t read a magazine or a book. He drank one glass of water with no ice. Mostly he just stared out the window.
It was a quiet flight. Real aficionados of “quiet flying” know that there is one small window of time when chatting is OK: When the electronics have been put away and you are coming in for a landing. Then and only then can you say things like, “Is Denver home?” or “Where are you headed?” I learned that Sargent Lance (not his real name—but it rhymes with Lance) was stopping in Denver for a few days to see family before heading back to Texas where he is stationed. He had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He had enjoyed his experience in the Army. He just found out he was “in” for another few years—and he was happy about his orders. It would postpone the inevitable moment when he would have to return to civilian society. Living “at home” produced more anxiety than another deployment.
Check it out:
- About a third of the homeless men in our country are veterans. They are twice as likely as other Americans to be chronically homeless.
- The risk of women veterans becoming homeless is four times greater than for men
- One in five veterans from Iraq report mental and emotional disorders—one in ten from Afghanistan
- 900,000 Veterans are jobless
- 22 veterans a day take their own life
(Statistics from US Department of Veterans Affairs and Coalition for Homeless Veterans)
I asked him how he felt when people thanked him for his service. He reacted as if he really hadn’t thought about it before. He said, “It’s nice I guess. I know it has been different in the past.” He said he had heard all of the stories from the “old guys coming back from Vietnam.” Then he said, “The thing for me is that, when people say thanks or whatever, I feel a little more like it’s OK for me to be there. Otherwise I am always like, what’s the deal here? It’s like I’m unsure what to do.” I asked if he relaxed when he was back on base. “Oh yeah,” he replied and actually smiled a little.
Sargent Lance is a young man whose service has set him apart from the culture he is serving. His uniform separates him and draws attention in the civilian world—and his uniform makes him blend and feel connected on base. As a military brat—I saw the same thing—admittedly from a less dangerous perspective. Constant travel and relocation; but the familiar patterns, uniforms, furniture, and food of the bases build a powerful bond to military life. The base becomes “home base.”
It is where Sargent Lance wants to be. He has skills in foreign language, logistics, programming, and of course leadership. But those skills seemed trapped in the paradigm called “Army Life.” I asked what he planned to do when he leaves the service. He had no idea. The idea of working outside the military was very difficult for him. He said “he wouldn’t know where to start.”
Here’s the deal. When we talk about veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, we are talking about 1% of our population. That is not a huge number. But there are the huge needs that must be met for physical, mental, and social support—for the rest of their lives. Yes we need to look at PTSD, health care, military family support, women’s veteran issues, home mortgage support with programs like HARP, jobs programs, education support and so on.
But these are all big, socio-political things. These are things that will rile up Republicans and Democrats alike. A review of veteran web-sites shows there are hundreds of programs available for veteran support—some are government, some are foundations, some are religious charities, and some are scams. Start a conversation about veterans issues and start a timer; in ten minutes the political mud-slinging begins; Obama this and Bush that. The veterans’ experience becomes just another source of fuel for polarizing political discourse.
But Sargent Lance is still staring out the window…
We know we did a terrible job with veterans returning from Vietnam. We know that in the rush to “stand down” our military forces we often betray the promises we made to active military and veterans. We know that health care benefits and wonderful programs like Tri-Care are at risk in the musical-chair scramble for medical dollars.
We need to be working collectively now to “on-board” our veterans back into our working culture. Here are some suggestions that came from my discussions with veteran-friends:
- Help veteran’s families along with the veterans. “They went through as much as we did when we were deployed. They made incredible sacrifices that don’t show up in the statistics.”
- The best people to help veterans are veterans. People who have been “down range” are the only people who know what it is like to be “down range.” If you are a veteran, help others now.
- Those of us who are not veterans need to think twice before we support policies that would further reduce benefits for veterans. It’s a compassion thing, but it’s also pragmatic. When we choose to go to war we must realize that we are simultaneously agreeing to live with the consequences of that action long after the last shot in anger. We will pay that piper one way or the other.
- People who lie, cheat, and abuse the resources set aside for veterans are the real pariahs. Thousands of people game the system for their own benefit. Check out this amazing video from Upworthy and you’ll see what I mean.
- Support legitimate veteran’s support charities. I am a big fan of the Navy Seal Foundation but feel free to pick the one that you connect with the most.
- Take a moment this summer to reflect on the history of our armed forces. Remember that every event in military history is about real people, flesh and blood, with the same hopes and fears as anyone else. But the experience of combat—and the machinations of war—change people. As a civilian culture we must develop the capacity to offer compassion, support, and community to those who have sworn an oath to defend this country.
As Sargent Lance and I left the plane I said, “Safe travels.” He replied, “Yeah, thanks for the quiet flight.” It occurred to me that he needed a quiet flight for very different reasons than me.
Something told me he had a lot on his mind.