Can Service Save Us?

It just might. By helping returning troops regain their sense of purpose, veterans’ groups are proving that public service is therapeutic

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TIME Magazine Cover, July 1, 2013
Photo-Illustration by Andrew B. Myers for TIME; styling by Kirsten Reader; typography by Joe Zeff Design

A Can-Do Spirit
A Vietnam-era veteran named Jody Martinez, who joined Team Rubicon’s disaster-relief effort after the Oklahoma City tornadoes, told me, “I wish we had something like this for my generation. I know so many Vietnam veterans who could have used it. There are so many lives that could have been saved.”

Posttraumatic stress disorder has probably been with us since the first club hit the first skull. It used to be called shell shock, but it has become more prevalent — and identifiable — as medical sophistication has grown and as more severely wounded troops survive the horrors of battle. It may affect as many as 40% of the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. It is amorphous and unpredictable, and sometimes maddeningly difficult to detect because there are no obvious physical manifestations; when it is paired with traumatic brain injury, it can be entirely debilitating. “It is also incredibly easy to fake, if you want to get a VA rating for disability payments,” a veterans leader told me. But it is real enough for people like Ian Smith and Mike Pereira of the Mission Continues, and for Team Rubicon’s Wood, who suffers from survivor’s guilt. The difference is, they believe it can be treated.

Van Dahlen of Give an Hour is vehement about dropping the D from PTSD. “In most cases, especially those without a significant brain injury, they’re going through a reasonable reaction to the terrifying experience of combat,” she says. “If it’s treated well, the effects should be transitory.” Indeed, posttraumatic stress isn’t just a reaction to the horrors of combat. When they leave the service, veterans are catapulted from an intense brother-and-sisterhood where the most serious issues imaginable are confronted every day, and plopped down into a society where they no longer have the comfort and purpose of being part of something larger than themselves. In a perverse way, their reaction to civilian life can be seen as a form of sanity: too many of the rest of us have slouched from active citizenship to passive couch-potato-hood. Many returning veterans find that passivity and isolation intolerable.

William McNulty, a co-founder of Team Rubicon, told me that the sense of military camaraderie regained on a disaster-relief project is so intense that it can lead to unintended consequences. After Hurricane Sandy, there were several reports of Team Rubicon volunteers crashing into depression or worse when they got home. One Marine telephoned McNulty in the middle of the night with a gun to his head; McNulty spent most of the night talking to him, finally persuading the Marine to give the gun to his grandmother. As a result of such cases, Team Rubicon and Van Dahlen are planning a joint mental-health and service effort, which would embed counselors in Team Rubicon disaster-relief teams and offer follow-on counseling to those who want it.

(PHOTOSSatellite Captures Damage and Recovery from Superstorm Sandy)

Greitens has also changed the Mission Continues fellowship program to reflect the psychological realities of coming home. Fellows are now grouped into four classes a year and have a weekend orientation at which they get to meet one another and gain the sense that they are, once again, part of something larger than themselves. They do a service project together and take an oath of service before returning to their communities. In addition, Greitens and his team have developed a mandatory personal-development curriculum for the fellows — reading and writing assignments each month to help their transition to civilian life and, more, to become “citizen leaders” back home.

In a 2009 study, 92% of recent veterans expressed a desire to continue serving in some way. Greitens and other leaders of veterans’ self-help groups want to modify the GI Bill so that it will also pay for a year’s worth of public service. “Service can help focus veterans, help them to find a career path and use their educational benefits under the GI Bill wisely,” says Ken Harbaugh of Service Nation, who was present at the creation of the Mission Continues. “Imagine the impact that 100,000 veterans spending a year in public service back home would have.”

But why stop there? “We’ve created a human program that works for veterans,” Greitens says. “There is no reason it can’t work for civilians.” There seems to be a general hunger for service in the 30-and-under millennial generation; in 2011 there were 582,000 applications for 82,000 slots in AmeriCorps, the federal government’s volunteer service program. Programs like the Peace Corps and Teach for America are also bursting with applicants.

Imagine the impact a robust national-service program — like the service corps proposed by the Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project — would have on our nation of couch dwellers. If service is therapeutic, imagine the impact, especially on boys, who are having more trouble than girls graduating from high school and college these days. If service can reconnect individuals to their communities, imagine the impact on our waning sense of civic engagement, our weirdly hollow democracy in which active citizenship has been displaced by marketing and political sloganeering. Would it be so bad if the rest of us became more attuned to the values and can-do spirit our veterans have brought home from the military?

PHOTOSLife in Sandy’s Wake

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