Veterans in a war-weary America

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Iraq War is over, with the last U.S. forces withdrawn at the end of 2011. American and allied forces continue to fight in Afghanistan, but the Obama administration has signaled it intends to end that mission beginning in 2014. After more than 10 years of the War on Terror, however, the United States is on the downward slope in this global military engagement.

While these battles are winding down, we are in the midst of another major adjustment -- the reintegration of 1.7 million Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans to civilian life. Of course, with the first Afghan veterans returning in 2002, and Iraq veterans in late 2003, the nation has been grappling with returning soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines for a decade.

What challenges have we discovered, and where can we do better? While recent veterans are hardly a single category and reflect the diversity of the United States as much as the diversity of their experiences, there are two broad challenges we face that deserve some consideration by our fellow Americans.

The most critical immediate need among veterans is for employment. As a recent article in the Southeast Missourian ("Pledges to Help," April 9) demonstrated, unemployment among recent veterans remains chronic, despite efforts through programs such as Show-Me Heroes, which has placed more than 1,500 Missouri veterans with jobs.

Nationally, the Employer Partnership of the Armed Forces helps former service members and those planning to leave military duty to network, apply for openings and make their resumes available to employers such as Bank of America, AT&T, Lowe's and Amazon.

Veterans have faced the crosscurrents of a recession, the possibility of additional tours (for those still in the reserve component), and misperceptions about post-traumatic stress disorder.

Those of us fortunate to have supportive employers, such as Southeast Missouri State University, are even more grateful when we hear the too-frequent accounts of veterans being denied re-employment, promotions or opportunities. While it is illegal to discriminate against veterans or to punish them for their military service, it's quite difficult to prove these cases, unless employers are so oblivious as to state their bias openly.

Organizations such as the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve can be helpful, but in the end each employer has to decide whether to provide equal opportunities for, and accommodations to, veterans. Given the skills, talents and work ethic that most veterans bring to civilian life, I suspect employers will discover that it is well worth the effort to hire us.

After employment, PTSD is highest on the list of concerns for many veterans and families. Unfortunately, it is a poorly understood phenomenon. Some in the media have portrayed veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan in a binary way, either crippled by PTSD, and therefore resorting to violence and substance abuse, or well-adjusted homecoming heroes, met at the airport by smiling families and their lives back to normal. In fact, those of us who served in the War on Terror have endured a transformative experience and in most cases rest somewhere on the PTSD spectrum.

While a recent estimate from the RAND Corp. identified 20 percent of recent war veterans as suffering from PTSD, this disorder affects each person differently. There is also not a direct correlation between the experience and the disorder; I served with soldiers who were never in combat yet returned psychologically disabled. I know other veterans who served frequent tours in hostile contexts, who emerged healthier, happier and more mature than when they first deployed. Then there are those like me, who were fortunate to avoid direct combat but did experience danger and the stress of a combat environment. Like me, almost all recent veterans have been able to return to what appears to be a well-adjusted life, but from time to time we still hear the echoes of war, still endure nightmares about lost comrades and still, on occasion, feel the urge to take cover at the sound of thunder.

There are no easy answers to the reintegration of recent veterans into American life. At least for my part, I remain grateful for the respect and gratitude I have received for my service in the War on Terror.

In terms of benefits -- tangible and intangible -- the United States has done more for its veterans than any nation in history, and here is hope that these benefits continue for those most in need, our most recent generation to have sacrificed for our liberties.

Wayne H. Bowen, professor and chairman of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University, is also a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: