There are signs that today’s vets have greater problems reintegrating into society that in previous eras. Perhaps most consequentially, today’s vets suffer from higher unemployment than not only their civilian peers, but also vets of previous generations.
In years past, troops were drafted–they didn’t even want to be in the military in the first place, but they snapped back into civilian life much more quickly than some of today’s vets, who all wanted to serve. Could that be part of the problem?
Overall, it’s no surprise that veterans in general often have difficulty readjusting to civilian life. For some vets, it’s just like any other life change that thousands of Americans deal with every day: They’ve left a long-held job and are possibly moving. Moves and job changes are plenty stressful just by themselves.
But some have a much harder time readjusting. Some might miss the camaraderie, while others miss the sense of purpose. Those things, by themselves or even together, can be challenges greater than most civilians have to deal with. For still other vets, add problems such as mental health issues or physical injury from military service. Put together, these can make readjusting a serious challenge.
Most of these factors aren’t unique to this generation; yet, today it seems to be worse than before. Veterans of the post-9/11 era report more difficulty adjusting to life after the military than earlier generations. Why is that the case? We can’t honestly claim that combat is harder today than in World War II, for example. We can’t say that society is less welcoming today than it was for Vietnam veterans. Veterans benefits and services have steadily expanded over the years, as well.
Studies are notably short on explanations or solutions to the reintegration problem. The military can do a better job making sure vets get the assistance they need in getting counseling and job placement, but a deeper problem appears to have taken root.
The problem vets have after military service may partly come from what makes the American military so effective. The U.S. military is an all-volunteer force. Everyone who joins wants to contribute to the fight, directly or indirectly. Apocryphal stories of “enlist or go to jail” aside, everyone in the military asked to be there and was exhaustively screened before getting in.
This is a huge asset to the nation’s ability to fight and win wars. But it comes with a price tag that must be paid when those troops return home. America has created a small warrior caste that that comes from a subset of society and can become further isolated from larger society after military service.
Under the draft, troops came from every segment of society. Service members were actual citizen-soldiers. They came with widely varying backgrounds. Troops mixed with others of widely varying backgrounds before returning to civilian society. More importantly, after leaving the service, those troops went back home to communities throughout the country. Whether you lived in Manhattan or Mobile, everyone personally knew someone who had served.
Today’s recruits come disproportionately from the South and have a close family member who has served. What’s more, military bases are increasingly isolated today. Base Realignment and Closure commissions have saved the government a great deal of money, but for both operational and cost reasons, the closures disproportionately affected bases in large urban areas and the Northeast, resulting in a shift towards rural areas and the South. Vast swaths of the country have no military bases other than perhaps a National Guard armory.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with these things. But they have created a nation full of citizens who largely “love the military” and support its veterans, but rarely encounter service members or vets. They are filled with concern for veterans in the abstract, but have little opportunity to interact with them in their daily lives. Even when they do have occasion to interact with veterans, their sympathetic words may ring hollow to vets who sense they know nothing about the military.
Veterans frequently don’t do themselves any favors in reintegrating. Many revel in labels such as “dysfunctional veteran,” wearing shirts that say things like “Veteran: leave me alone.” Some of this is in the healthy spirit of military black humor. Much of it, though, comes across like a troubled adolescent’s angry cry for attention while demanding to be left alone.
Withdrawal from other people may seem a comfort for some when returning from the military, especially after having lived and worked in close quarters for so long. Sometimes the disability pay veterans receive as a result of their medical or psychological issues, while deserved, enables them to live off the grid for a time, aggravating their existing problems even further.
In reality, for those leaving the service, “leave me alone” is never the right attitude. Usually, the person who most wants to be alone is the person who most needs others. It might start with a fellow veteran or a counseling group at a Vet Center. Or, it can be a group like Team RWB, which brings vets and civilians together. Eventually, everyone needs to reach that point where being a vet is a part of what defines oneself to others, but not the whole definition.
The military needs to make reintegration into society an integral part of the process of separating. Too much of the process of leaving the military is a series of check-the-box briefs about VA benefits, household budgets, and resume writing. Having a social network is at least as important as knowing the location of the nearest VA hospital or office. While the military can’t force separating veterans to integrate into their communities, it can help them realize the importance of doing so and give them tools to make it happen.
The draft-era military had its problems, but veterans who lived under that system were forced to reintegrate into society. The draft was rightly abandoned, but we have yet to fully replace everything it did for the military and its relationship to civil society.