Battleland

Vets Aren’t Victims

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Army Lt. Col. Tim Karcher took his first steps in public last fall at Fort Hood, Texas, a year after losing both legs to an IED in Iraq / Army photo by Guadalupe Stratman

Vets aren’t victims.

Like many people of Celtic descent, I don’t just have a temper – I have an Irish temper. (Hooray genetic enablers that double as rationalizations!) And one of the things that consistently stokes those mind-flames is the “vets are victims” fallacy.

We volunteered. In some cases, we volunteered because we wanted to go to war. That’s not a concept American society as a whole is very comfortable with, because the sharper edges of warrior culture contrast so stridently with postindustrial societal norms. Killing is bad. (Unless those being killed are worse). Rough men are uncivilized and coarse. (Until they’re needed). And service members are heroes best celebrated en masse and in the abstract, because veterans by themselves and in the flesh have, you know. Issues.

The latest numbers for Iraq and Afghanistan vets aren’t pretty. Over 12 percent are unemployed, which translates to roughly 232,000 people in real numbers. The public sector has taken notice of this, as evidenced by President Obama’s just announced New Veterans’ Employment Initiative. But enacting things like the proposed tax credits for hiring returning veterans will take a unified effort in Capitol Hill – something that seems a bit unlikely right now.

A suicide epidemic continues to plague the military community, with 468 suicides occurring in 2010 – more than died in combat. Those are just military numbers too, since the VA (of which only about half of Iraq and Afghanistan vets are enrolled) doesn’t track cause of death.

And, really, these are just the tip of the iceberg – we all need to remember that as these wars wind down, the military will likely downsize, as it usually does in postwar periods. A new surge of veterans will be coming home in the next couple years. That guy with the muscles and tattoos in the black tee shirt in the back of your local bar? He’s spent 30 or so months in a combat zone and has a lot more to offer the community than just war stories, though even he may not know that yet.

My boss at IAVA, Paul Rieckhoff, likes to refer to the modern American treatment of troops as a “sea of goodwill.” We should all be thankful for that. I didn’t return from war by myself on a midnight flight, to a nation unable or unwilling to separate the warrior from the war – I returned with my men, offered beers and plenty of praise, regardless of personal politics. Good times, better memories. But.

But.

In this era of the all-volunteer force (I’ll spare readers that personal rant … for now), military veterans too often morph into walking, talking ciphers, onto which a litany of descriptors are projected. Brave! Humble! Quiet! Sacrificing! I knew soldiers like that, certainly. I also knew some that were loud, crass, and scared of their own shadow. Most, myself included, were some combination of all of the above, depending on the day or the mission or the moment.

Nearly ten years into the Global War on Terror, and the much-vaunted civilian-military divide, brought on by a warrior caste fighting for a nation rather than with it, still resonates throughout our society. Personal anecdotes show that qualitatively, and statistics like the employment and suicide numbers mentioned above measure it quantitatively.  If a panacea for bridging this divide existed, someone much smarter than me would’ve thought of it by now. I do believe though, that recognizing vets as individuals, and getting vets to recognize themselves accordingly, is as good a starting point as any. And it starts with this:

“Hi, I’m a vet. And I’m not a victim.”

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