America's veterans: Lost at home
At a recent dinner in New York's Gotham Hall, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, poignantly described the lot of veterans of our campaigns in Southwest Asia. Returning home, Mullen said, they encounter a society from which their service has in a way estranged them. Can we help them if we do not understand what they and their families need as they make their transition back to civilian life?
Our servicemen and women and their families accept as routine psychological and physical trauma that most Americans never see. Mullen spoke of Annette Kuyper, the mother of a National Guardsman, who said, "We closed the blinds on the windows overlooking the driveway so we don't see the Army vehicle arriving with a chaplain bearing the unbearable news." Imagine the night before deploying to a combat zone, telling a son or daughter, a high-schooler approaching adulthood perhaps, that if a military vehicle drives up and a chaplain and an officer of higher rank get out, it is time to stand by their remaining parent. Try to put yourself in the shoes of a single parent who must not only leave his or her children with parents or friends for 15 months but who must also live with the reality that the children may not see him or her again. Unlike military families, the average American does not live with this dread of the knock on the door.
Those who serve in harm's way sustain these psychological scars, often with no complaint. As Mullen put it, "They're a very proud group. They don't always show that they are struggling, and they are guarded when it comes to talking about their needs. One Iraq veteran says, 'You don't ask for help. You think you can do it and you think you can handle it, because that's what you're trained to do.' "
A number of service members were honored at the dinner, including an explosive ordnance disposal technician who had served eight short tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some Army helicopter pilots are starting their sixth 12- to 15-month tour. For senior noncommissioned officers and officers in the Army and Marine Corps, three to four tours can be the norm.
"The post-traumatic stress, the stigma, the toll on families; the health-care demands; the rising rate of homelessness, including an alarming rate of female veteran homelessness; the silent epidemic and taboo of suicide - indeed, it paints a stark forecast," Mullen said. And despite "America's love and pride for the troops, and support of military our families. . . [for] many of our fellow citizens, the military remains an abstraction."
For those who remain on active duty, the culture of the military helps with family stress and the scars that service members develop from long-term exposure to combat. Most veterans who return to civilian life leave the military without the benefit of a retirement pension. All they and their families want is to have a degree, a job and to watch their children grow up - "all things they have justly earned," Mullen noted. For those who retire after long service or from medical necessity, or for those who become widows, the trek back poses daunting challenges. More than two-thirds of veterans returning to civilian life report they were not contacted by any organization in their hometown. Thirteen percent report that their transition went well; 9 percent report that their family's needs are being met.
It is shocking that in this information age, in which computer and cellphone applications instantly give the location of friends or allow immediate reservations at most any restaurant, we have no system that allows returning veterans, their spouses and families of the fallen to find audiologists, physical therapists, employment and educational counseling, a supportive social network, chaplains and other service providers they will need once the support of their unit and military service fades. It's not that communities do not want to help; the lines for communication just do not exist.
Why is it that, in a rich and caring society like ours, during an age when the most casual information from a continent away is available in real time, we cannot provide a virtual bridge to shorten the long way home for those who have sacrificed in our defense?
The writer, a retired Army general, is president and chief executive of Business Executives for National Security. His father was a soldier killed in World War II.