In honor of Veterans Day tomorrow, we present the first of a two-part blog series by YouCaring interns Kenny Healy and Jacob Sheehan.
Kenny Healy, right, is an active duty naval officer in his second year at Stanford Graduate School of Business in Palo Alto, Calif. In June 2016, he will begin Navy Flight School in Pensacola, Fla., and begin a career as a naval aviator. Kenny is proud to be a military ambassador to YouCaring in support of its efforts to connect veterans with a compassionate giving community around the world.
Jacob Sheehan, left, is an active duty Army Special Forces officer in his second year at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in Palo Alto, Calif. In July 2016, he will begin an assignment serving as an economics instructor and mentor to cadets at West Point. Jacob is proud to be a military ambassador to YouCaring because the organization encourages donors to make giving a lifestyle, rather than a one-time event.
THE UNTOUCHABLE VETERAN
On Nov. 11, our country will celebrate its 15th Veterans Day since the attacks on 9/11. Although the Global War on Terror still occupies our nation’s military, this Veterans Day is the first since the official end of combat operations in Afghanistan. Even though service members remain deployed in hostile environments, it is fitting to step back and reflect on the relationship between American society and its veterans community at home.
Much has been written about the civil-military gap in our country. Less than 1% of Americans are considered veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. To put it more simply, you are statistically more likely to know a farmer than a veteran of recent wars. For most Americans, the experience of deploying for a year in combat, returning to family, and deploying again is an unfamiliar cycle. In the absence of firsthand experience, America has constructed two common narratives about its veterans: the hero and the victim.
Airports are one of the rare places where Americans interact with veterans. Uniformed military are commonly approached by strangers who say, “Thank you for your service,” and offer a handshake. Major airlines give service members priority boarding. Occasionally, you may observe a unit returning from deployment or a group of World War II veterans embarking on an Honor Flight. These interactions place members of the military in a situation more complicated than combat: carrying a hero status.
Hollywood and the media have moved veterans from the pedestal to even higher levels of hero worship. Americans have turned out in droves to see actors portray members of elite special operations units in movies such as Zero Dark Thirty or American Sniper, which is the highest-grossing military film to date. Sporting events and even Budweiser advertisements regularly feature emotional homecomings. Putting veterans on a pedestal has become politically—and even commercially—profitable. To suggest that veterans are anything but heroes is blasphemy. Politicians of all stripes regurgitate the same rhetoric: you are either for veterans, or you are against them. America, with its residual guilt from the treatment of veterans during the Vietnam War, has overcorrected and institutionalized that every veteran is hero.
In contrast, veterans are just as often characterized as victims as they are heroes. The narrative suggests that naive recruits are whisked unknowingly into war, ignorant of its physical and psychological costs. Even today in the era of the all-volunteer force, society holds the notion that the military is composed disproportionately of members of poor and working-class families—people with no better option than to join the service. Although the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been fought entirely from an all-volunteer force that represents a diverse cross-section of America, society has not quickly shed the veteran victim mentality.
The victim mentality is reinforced by media reports centered on topics associated with PTSD and veterans suicide, which was widely reported at 22 suicides per day. Even though that number has been repeatedly disproven, media and politicians have stuck to it. The recent scandals that rocked the VA serve as more fodder for the veteran-as-a-victim narrative. In a similar context, veterans returning from war are depicted by the media as listless in their reintegration with society. Their wartime service has given their private sector peers time to get ahead in their careers, so veterans will end up unemployed and even homeless. A proliferation of nonprofits targeting these top-of-mind veterans issues has started in recent years, but few have been challenged with respect to their effectiveness or stewardship of resources.
The problem with these sweeping archetypes of heroes and victims is that they put veterans in a new, contradictory category: untouchable. As heroes, they can do no wrong. As victims, they can’t do anything right.
Hero worship limits the nuanced political dialogue necessary to answer difficult questions such as “What criteria justifies America’s decisions to go to war?” or “Is it possible to cut defense spending or VA benefits in today’s political environment?” or “What is the right size for America’s military?” Raising such questions is often perceived as unpatriotic. Yet, most veterans agree that public dialogue on these questions would have a more powerful impact on their personal lives than a fancy homecoming parade.
Similarly, the victim narrative elicits a fear to interact with veterans or hire them in America’s companies for reasons other than altruism. For veterans, the victimization makes returning to society even harder. Some become dependent on their victim label while others settle for a recluse citizenship. Veterans, who are some of the nation’s most capable leaders, end up sidelined by society. And programs that aim to help veterans recover in reality diminish their ability to overcome challenges, a skill they once demonstrated in combat.
A Time of Reflection
This Veterans Day, we urge you to take time to reflect on the relationship between society and America’s veterans. What archetypes are getting in the way of you having a better understanding of military life and the questions facing the veterans community? Can you help veterans share their own narratives to close the gap between societal constructs and reality? Let’s work together to challenge misperceptions and build from scratch a new relationship between veterans and society.
Check back tomorrow, Nov. 11, for part 2 in this blog series, when Kenny and Jacob will put their theory into practice and demonstrate one of the best avenues to reach veterans philanthropically: through three online fundraising campaigns for local nonprofits dedicated to veterans causes.