Enlisting our Veterans as Active Duty Citizens
When it comes to veteran integration, society sees with blurred vision.
There are two simultaneous narratives regarding our former military men and women to which we Americans subscribe:
Firstly, we raise our veterans upon a pedestal, elevating them to living-martyr status. They sacrificed, and embody a set of values that are essential to our national and cultural identity. We figuratively salute our veterans, and readily thank them for their service.
Secondly, we treat our veterans as patients. As soon as they take off their uniforms, we send them to a clinic. As soon as we strike up a conversation with a veteran, or about veterans, the first subject is usually related to their physical or mental well-being. We honor them, we memorialize them, and we seek to help them.
But neither narrative successfully captures the true nature or value of our veterans — and, if anything — only serves to further deny them true appreciation, and functional post-military integration.
Furthermore, by focusing solely on our veterans' past traits or accomplishments, we miss out on recognizing the exceptional contributions they make to our community long after they take off the uniform. We develop and adhere to an incomplete picture, one that ends the biography of our veterans well before the full breadth of their life, service, and abilities is actualized.
In essence, we unknowingly limit our veterans to an unfinished story that negates their full potential, constraining them to the extremes of sainthood or brokenness.
The greater reality is somewhere in between: our veterans are among the single-digit percentage of the American population who signed up to serve our country, yet they are disproportionately represented in certain areas of significant social concern.
But there is so much more to the richness, skill sets, and sizable contributions made to our communities throughout the veteran-citizen lifespan.
In 2015, a sociological examination of civic health by the National Conference on Citizens revealed that our nation's veterans are remarkably engaged citizens: Veterans are three times more likely to participate in a civic or service group and nearly twice as likely to reach out to their elected officials. They're sizably more likely to attend public meetings, vote, discuss politics with family and friends, fix problems and provide favors in their neighborhoods, donate more money to charity, and volunteer many more hours than their nonveteran peers.
Interestingly, veterans without a college degree are equally engaged civically as nonveteran college graduates. When veterans earn college degrees, their civic engagement increases further.
This demonstrates that the nature of service that drew these men and women to join the military, and their training, education, and experience earned while in the military, are major assets with a considerable impact on society.
While this creates stronger neighborhoods where our veterans reside, their economic impact is even greater. According to 2014 estimates by the U.S. Small Business Administration, veterans are 45 percent more likely to be self-employed than nonveterans, representing about $1 trillion in annual sales nationally.
Their community and economic impact is not going wholly unnoticed: the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for instance, is providing grants and training to veterans who want to be first-time farmers to help meet critical food system needs.
With just under half of all veterans coming from rural communities, they are returning home and proving to be engines of change and growth in areas dominated by corporate agriculture and hampered by low employment.
Correcting Society's Blurred Vision
Imagine for a moment that you volunteered to serve your country. At minimum, you undergo a transformation that forever changes your social and personal identity, endure intensive training and labor in a culturally-diverse, team-focused, and goal-oriented environment, and take on critical management responsibilities before you are old enough to drink.
Following this, you return home, or relocate to a new community to buy a home, go to school, start a career or your own business, and start or raise a family.
Yet despite all of your experience, drive, motivation, and personal accomplishments, you're met by family, friends, educators, employers, policymakers, and a general public who treat you as a hero incapable of normal functioning.
How can one thrive under these circumstances? Unwittingly having to fight stereotypes or unrealistic expectations, all the while trying to establish one's future self, seeking success in the nonmilitary environment.
Our response and treatment towards veterans — no matter how well-intended — is just as detrimental to them as it is to us. We stymie their potential, and miss out on a chance for meaningful engagement.
We have so much to gain from a different interaction — one that could strengthen our families, our communities, and our economy — should we focus on the amazing post-military potential of these men and women.
Our attempts at engaging veterans should not begin with a "thank you" or a gift of some sort. They should start with a declaration and a call to serve:
"We have an important mission for you here at home and we need you on our team. What can we do to get started?"
Contact Jay Breneman at firstname.lastname@example.org