When I joined the Army as a 17-year-old, I expected to face many challenges and hardships as an individual — whether that meant getting yelled at or shot at or made to jump out of airplanes. What I didn’t yet understand was how much I’d put aside my individual concerns and focus on my fellow service members — or how much they’d do the same for me. The truth is that I had never been in such a supportive social environment in my life.
That might sound odd to people who’ve never been in the military. Getting chewed out for not having shoes shined hardly seems supportive to most people. But that’s just one part of the military experience. In the Army, it mattered to someone else whether my boots fit properly. It mattered to someone else whether I had been to the dentist recently. It mattered to someone else if I wasn’t where I was supposed to be at the right time. To be sure, all of this attention paid to my performance was in the interest of team performance, but it also meant someone was always there for me.
And then you exit the service. No more intrusive surprise health and welfare inspections. No more grueling runs and setting your speed to the slowest member of your group. No more morning formations. No more of the countless bureaucratic irritations of military life. Paradise, right?
Actually, for many of us, no. Gone, suddenly, is the cohesive structure that existed to take care of you. Gone is that strong sense of social security. Gone are friends from your ready-made peer group, who are just as invested in your success as you are in theirs.
News reports carry a lot of disheartening statistics about U.S. Veterans. (Like the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, I capitalize the word Veterans to be respectful.) Nearly a fifth of Veterans between 18 and 24 are jobless. Veterans suffer a 33 percent higher rate of narcotics overdoses than the rest of the population, and their suicide rate is slightly higher, too. People often react to this with pity, assuming that the cause is tied to trauma suffered while in the service.
But I suspect that the main contributor to adjusting to civilian life is something else entirely, and rarely is it because of battle trauma. Rather, when Veterans leave military service, many of them, like me, are leaving the most cohesive and helpful social network they’ve ever experienced. And that hurts. Most recent Veterans aren’t suffering because they remember what was bad. They’re suffering because they miss what was good.
One friend went from being a combat medic in the Army to a transfer student in the health field at a major university. He got good grades, but none of his efforts to connect with his new peers and replace the social cohesion he was missing worked. He nearly wound up dropping out of school. Simply put, he felt isolated and adrift. Another friend, a smart, capable Marine, floundered when discharged from the service around the time of her divorce. For a stretch she was even homeless. What rescued her was a stint with AmeriCorps, the federal community service organization, which gave her a job that led to full-time employment with a national nonprofit. AmeriCorps offered my friend three crucial things: a new mission, a new purpose, and a strong, supportive social network in which people were invested in one another’s well-being and success. That allowed her to get back on her feet.
Those who have served in the military are resilient, capable leaders. Veterans aren’t looking for a handout and certainly don’t want to be pitied. If civilian life could offer Veterans more of the virtues of military life — accountability, cohesion, a sense of purpose — I suspect you’d hear less about the “problems” Veterans face and more about the achievements that come from harnessing such vast energy, discipline, and public spirit.