The PR Problem the Pentagon and VA Share

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There’s a saying that you can leave the military, but the military never leaves you. To me and many others who have separated from military service, the phrase has dual meanings. There are, of course, the experiences that we carry with us forever. But there are also the many benefits and resources that not only help former service members transition into the civilian world; but that remain available at all stages of civilian life.

That’s why I found this week’s story about the struggles of a former SEAL Team Six member so difficult to understand.

“The Shooter,” as he is called in an Esquire article to be published in the March issue (but released on Monday), is reportedly the man who killed Osama Bin Laden. He suffers with arthritis, tendonitis, eye damage, and blown disks. Just four months after he left the service, and less than two years after he and his team rid the world of its most dangerous terrorist, he claims he has “nothing” to show for his service.

No health care. No pension. No prospects.

All that, even though the U.S. military’s separation processes are among the most supportive, intensive, and transparent out there. There are complete physicals to identify any health or medical issues. There is counseling for those struggling to cope with their experiences. There are mentoring programs designed to provide veterans with one-on-one support and effective acclimation strategies. There are clear explanations of benefits that enable service members to make the most informed choices about the future. There are even mock job interviews. And when you finally make your exit, you do so with a binder full of helpful resources and information under your arm.

The Navy’s response to the story, shared most notably in a piece in Monday’s Stars and Stripes, articulated most of these facts and did so in timely fashion.

But the notion that an American Hero would be so callously left out to dry has still created significant reputational problems for it and the other armed services. Worst of all, the story’s timing compounds the issue.

It comes just a week after Chris Kyle’s tragic death at the hands of a former Marine he was mentoring. As such, it is yet another report that frames veterans’ issues in a negative context – just as the media is ramping up to cover more and more stories shared by combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even with all the support the military provides, some veterans will continue to struggle for any number of legitimate reasons – and when they do, you can bet that the media will document their hardships with a laser-like focus on who’s to blame.

But what can the Pentagon do that it isn’t doing already?

Its separation procedures far exceed any found in the private sector. It can’t change the rules because it deems one service member’s contributions more valuable than another’s. Even if there were enhancements to be made, the chances they could be implemented in this era of sequestration are slim.

At the same time, the Pentagon can’t keep running from public-relations fire to public-relations fire, hoping to contain the reputational damage as best it can. That’s a perpetual game of catch-up that only reinforces the notion among veterans, active service members, and the public that the U.S. government is failing to adequately care for those who sacrifice so much for the American people.

Instead, the Pentagon needs to do a better job of controlling the overarching narrative.

Where are the competing, positive accounts of post-military lives made better because of the resources the military provides? Where are the success stories that can elicit a “that’s not what I heard” response when veterans’ struggles make news? Where are the intensely personal and emotional stories of achievement that can not only remind veterans about the support that exists; but also inspire them to use it?

Last year, one such story went viral and swept the social media world with more than 7 million views on YouTube. It shares the travails of Arthur, a disabled Gulf War veteran who had “basically given up” after chronic knee and back ailments led to significant weight gain and other associated health problems. It’s hard not to tear up watching Arthur use yoga and other therapies to reduce the pain, lose the weight, and take back control of his life. When the video opens, he is on crutches and in wheelchairs. By the time it is done, he is sprinting.

Stories such as Arthur’s – whether they are about physical health, mental wellness, or simple financial security – play out every day thanks to the programs administered by the Pentagon, VA, and a host of other entities. But until the military starts telling them in earnest – and across the digital and social media channels that most acutely impact perceptions today – they can’t provide the cover needed to contain the damage when negative news inevitably arises.

Ernest DelBuono, a retired Coast Guard Commander, is a Senior Vice President at LEVICK and Chair of the firm’s crisis practice.