Integrating our veterans: The lonely road from military to civilian life

Commentary: The director of a veteran treatment and advocacy organization reflects on challenges for returning soldiers

One day you are a soldier, sailor, airman or marine. Then the next day, you are back to being just a citizen.

In my experience, no real guidance or exit training is provided for returning servicemen. There are a few ineffective transition classes and programs — most are bitingly referred to as “death by PowerPoint.”

It was called “End Time in Service” during my time in the military: a brief moment of your military career to leave the highly structured environment for a much less structured life.

In and out of service

Initially, joining the military involves a life-changing process. You spend years learning to assimilate into the culture.

Shared language, mission, clothing, experience, and separate laws dominate the military experience. During basic training, you are suddenly immersed, and deviation or individuality is met swiftly with punishment. You learn to trust your battle comrades, your superiors and the battalion and brigade to which you are assigned. During this period, you re-learn to do the simplest tasks such as lacing your boots a certain way, making your bed, eating, and so on. Your platoon becomes your family; your buddies become your brothers.

At some point you realize that your thinking has turned “military.” The prevalence of militarisms in speech and thought override the ways of conceptualizing the civilian world. This is the highly-structured environment in which members of the military are immersed — from as few as four to as many as 30 years. 

Upon returning, most veterans assimilate back into the community well, with the benefit of some personal planning, sense of direction, and specific plans to start employment or college. But some do not. While you’re in, prevalent issues from before military service recede to the background due to the highly structured environment. Exposure to combat or the more insidious side of the military, such as trauma from sexual assault, can have a profound impact on the mental health of the veteran. Post-traumatic stress, Military Sexual Trauma, visible and invisible wounds may prevent successful assimilation. 

This is a direct impact of not being provided the proper coping skills to reenter civilian life. 

If the military spent as much time training and preparing our men and women who serve to re-integrate into society after service as they do preparing them to assimilate into the culture, we could decisively end veteran homelessness, poverty and suicides, as well as provide for mental health and supports that would lead to a higher quality of life for America’s heroes. Veterans are 50 percent more likely to commit suicide, and are more likely to wind up incarcerated. These are all complex issues, with no simple solutions, but a greater effort by the military before active members separate just might save lives.

Drinking, drugs, and risky behaviors are the direct result of isolation felt by the veteran. It is difficult to “trust” the civilian population and this alienation can foster damaging escapism. Other than a few moments during the nightly news, or plopping a yellow sticker on one’s car, most citizens have had no direct consequence of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That lack of shared experience and the resulting lack of understanding create a huge division between the veteran and the civilian community.  

Recovering from combat

In past wars, there was a period of time from the cessation of hostilities until one arrived home. This period was important allowing soldiers to process through their trauma. A troop ship taking a few months to arrive home allowed for talking, laughing, crying and working through all the horror experienced and allowing time to heal. During ancient wars this travel could be as much as a year to arrive home. Today, a soldier can be in combat today and home tomorrow. With minimal out-processing, this veteran is released jobless into his or her community pining for the loss of his or her support system, and working alone to navigate multiple bureaucracies to obtain critical benefits. 

The military should provide as much time out-processing as they do assimilating. Give military members the supports necessary to return to society, and integrate back into civilian culture. Give them decent care by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and hold administrators accountable for delays in treatment or lost paperwork. Let veterans receive care in their own communities after out-processing. Build affordable housing that is veteran-centric, and allow for intensive behavioral health care by the community and community-based providers. Finally, make sure they have employment, or are accepted to college or trade schools before out-processing is complete.

We owe the greatest debt to our veterans. We made them a promise: if you protect us, fight our wars, and keep us safe in our beds at night, we will take care of you when your time in uniform is done. We need to keep our promise. They kept theirs.

Marc Deal is the Executive Director for Veterans Resource Centers of America. Organized in 1980, VRC is a community based non-profit organization providing employment and training, housing, rehabilitation and case management and advocacy services to veterans from all eras.

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