Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published on Thought Catalog.
1. Welcome home.
We’re glad you are back. We’re really, really, really glad that you are home safe.
2. Be kind to people when you come home.
You may know that people are glad you are home. But, given the way that the world seems to have ticked on just fine while you were gone, you may find it hard to believe.
I remember coming home from deployment and driving past a Wendy’s drive-thru. There everyone sat — waiting for their burgers and frosties — and I felt the urge to hit the brakes, get out of my truck and ask, “Do you know what is going on? Do you know that there are people fighting, and some of them dying and being maimed in your name half a world away?”
You left, and the world kept on ticking. Your kids got older, your home team kept playing, your neighbors kept working. It’s natural to feel, because the world kept on moving, that nobody noticed that you were gone.
But that’s not true.
I remember a few friends and family telling me that when I came home it was the first time in seven months that they felt that they could take a full breath. You have people who love you, and a country that honors you. If they are awkward in how they express that love, or a little clumsy in how they honor you, then be generous with them. They are trying, like you, to do the right thing.
You learned a lot of great things in the military. You probably also learned patience as you waited — waited for food, waited for uniforms, waited for orders, waited for … we often waited so long that we forgot what we were waiting for. If you could be a patient warrior, then find the strength to be a patient son, daughter, husband, wife, father, mother, and friend.
Be patient with the people who love you. They’re glad you’re home, and in many ways your deployment was easier on you than it was on them. You knew what was happening every day. You saw what was right in front of you. You knew when to be scared and when to relax, and you could exercise at least some control over your situation. People at home don’t usually have that luxury. They just worried the whole time. Accept your welcome home.
3. You’ve got a lot to offer, so keep serving and find a way to lead.
You learned a lot of great stuff in the military. Let’s not make you or anyone out to be some superhero, but you should recognize that you are a different and a better person because of your service. You learned something about what it means to accomplish a mission, to build a team, to deal with pain, to serve a purpose — that your friends who never served will likely never know.
So, the question is, what are you going to do with all of that? Most veterans get stuck thinking only, “I’ve got to find a job.” And that’s true, you do. You need to get a job, start a business, maybe go back to school. But having worked with thousands of veterans around the country, I can also tell you with the certainty of a shotgun blast that you need to keep serving. It’s part of who you are. Serve, and you’ll feel stronger. Serve, and you’ll rebuild your sense of purpose. Serve, and you’ll create a new team. Serve, and you, your neighbors, your friends, your colleagues, and your family will all see how much you have to offer. And while you’re at it, lead where you can. Our communities and our country are hungry for your leadership.
And one final word on this: Don’t wait. Do it now. Yes, before you find the perfect job, before you start your business, before you go back to school. Start to serve, somehow, as soon as you can. Your community and your country still need you.
4. Be a veteran.
You are a veteran. Be proud of it. Put it on your resume. If you don’t know how to make your service make sense to a civilian, then figure it out. Talk with a friend who’s done it. Figure out how to answer people’s questions about your service, even if those questions are awkward.
Too many times those of us who are veterans will whine about civilians who ask, “Did you kill anybody?” Or, “Do you have PTSD?” Yeah, those aren’t the most sensitive questions. But you know that line from the movie “Dodgeball,” where the old coach says, “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball” — well, If you can handle a drill instructor screaming in your ear, you can handle an awkward question.
Don’t play the role of the “wounded” veteran who nobody understands. You’ll end up shutting out the world around you. If people don’t understand you, make yourself understood. Explain what you did. Explain why you are proud of what you did. Explain that you are glad to be home, and let people know what your plans are, even if those plans are uncertain. Yes, there are some real jerks out there. But not most people. Ninety-nine percent of the people you run into respect you more than you may ever imagine, and they’d love to help you given half a chance.
It’s easy to blame civilians because they “don’t get it.” But understanding is a two-way street. You are a citizen first, before you became a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine. So don’t hide your service from your fellow citizens. Instead, learn to talk about what it means to serve. You have a lot to offer them. And, if you teach them well, then maybe they’ll ask better questions of your buddy when he or she gets out.
5. Be more than a veteran.
The veteran thing can also be overdone. Marine Corps sticker on your truck? Cool. Be proud. Semper Fi, brother. But if you’re wearing your cammie pants around town, your combat boots every day, an “I’m a veteran” hat to every one of your classes, your combat patch on your jacket, all of your friends are veterans, and every story out of your mouth is about what it was like “down range,” then it might be not that you’re proud, but that you’re stuck.
Serving in the military was part of your life. Be proud of it. But if “being a veteran” has become so all consuming that it’s the only way people know you, and it’s the only way you know yourself, then you’re cutting yourself off from everything else the world has to offer. Be a proud veteran. And be a proud brother, sister, father, mother, friend, and citizen as well.
6. Be careful with your benefits.
The Department of Veterans Affairs will offer you a lot when you get out: free tuition, a living stipend if you are a student, good deals on a mortgage, and also benefits if you were disabled as a result of your service. Be careful with these. Everyone wants you to enjoy what you have earned, but there are a few traps built into the “benefits system” that can encourage dependency, when what you really want is to live a productive and purposeful life again.
A few big things to be careful of:
The VA system today is unfortunately designed to encourage you to think of yourself as disabled. When I was serving In Iraq, my team was hit by a suicide truck bomb that had been laced with chlorine. After the attack, I had some minor injuries, including some effects from the chlorine. It was harder to breathe for a few days, maybe a few weeks after the attack. By the time I went to the VA, I felt fine, but they told me that if something happens in the future — say, for example, I get lung cancer at age 45 — they need to record my “disability” now, or else I wouldn’t be eligible for treatment later. I continue to serve in the reserves, can run as fast as when I was 18, and the idea that I have a chronic lung disability is absurd, but there you have it: The VA can look at healthy people and treat as “disabled veterans.”
My situation isn’t unique; when you get out you may have dozens of well-meaning people explaining to you why you “have” to be disabled — because of the financial benefits, because of the extra education benefits, because of the health care. In some transition programs, veterans are positively encouraged to “get all they can.” All of the reasons offered sound good and rational when you first hear them. But for a lot of veterans, there is a psychological cost to now thinking of themselves as “disabled.”
Understand that the VA is a massive bureaucracy. It’s grown into the second largest department of the federal government after the Department of Defense. Over 300,000 people work for the VA, and it has an annual budget over $160 billion.
There are — let me be very clear about this — extraordinary people of exceptional commitment who serve in the VA. But it’s in the nature of bureaucracies to perpetuate and to sustain themselves, without always measuring the effect that they are having on the lives of those they aim to serve. Over the last 15 years, the number of veterans has decreased by millions, while the amount of money spent on veterans has gone up by tens of billions. And that’s while the oldest veterans — proud members of the World War II and Korea generations, whose care is most expensive — are dwindling in numbers.
Too many veterans who used to serve and sacrifice on behalf of others, get caught up playing a game with the VA: How much can I get? You get a 20% disability rating for PTSD, and people start to wonder, why not ask for 30% or 40%? And wow, if you get 60%, then the VA might pay you as if you are 100% disabled as long as you don’t get a job. So, you get one disability check from the VA, and the next thing people think is, “Well, maybe I should apply for a Social Security disability check as well: it’s free money.” But, of course, it’s not free. Your fellow citizens sweat for that check, and you pay a mental cost when you decide that you won’t work for the rest of your life. You sacrifice your sense of dignity, meaning, and purpose when you decide that you have nothing left to contribute to the society that you once were willing to defend with your life.
And here’s the thing about this: It happens slowly. It creeps in insidiously. People don’t start out intending, at the age of 27, to live off of taxpayer money for the rest of their lives. Instead, it works like this: A veteran thinks, “Well, I want to work, but this isn’t the perfect job, and it is kind of nice to be home with my kids, especially after all the time away on deployment, and if I start working then the government will take away some of the money I’m getting from my disability checks. So, maybe I’ll just wait for a better job to come along.” Then, maybe the veteran stops looking so hard for a job. Then, a few more months go by and he or she have been unemployed for a year or more, and now it really is harder to get a job.
You get the point. You earned your benefits. So use the ones that will make you stronger. Go back to school if that’s what’s right for you. Buy your first home, and if have a great doctor or nurse or physical therapist at the VA, then please go out of your way thank them for what they do. Let’s just be smart about how we do this. The military culture is special because you earned everything that you got, and that made you justifiably proud. Now that you’re home, live your life the same way.
7. Have fun and enjoy what you fought for.
You served overseas to defend freedom. So enjoy your freedom. Even if you’re not sure what to do at first, do it anyway. Go to a great game. Call an old friend. Take a class about something you were always curious about. Paint a bad painting. Play a new sport. Take your kids for ice cream. Then take them back again the next day.
You’re home now, we’re here for you, and you’ve got a big, beautiful life to live. Enjoy the freedom you fought for.