Stop Feeling Sorry for American Veterans

Some of the men and women returning from the service genuinely need help. But most do not -- and they're tired of being pitied. 

military-guys-wide.jpg Reuters

Judging from media accounts, I'm the rare American veteran who isn't homeless, homicidal, or suicidal.

To be sure, the toll of almost 11 years of constant war has been high. Divorce among military families is at record levels at a time when it's declining among the civilian population. As best we can tell, veterans are half again as likely to be homeless as non-veterans. And more soldiers have killed themselves this year than have died on the battlefield.

These trends are damning and shameful. Thankfully, society has taken notice. In the past few years, there's been more investment in counseling services and other programs to help ameliorate the trauma of war and the pain of separation from family.

At the same time, it's fair to note that the comparative statistics are skewed, and that once we control for age, sex, and level of education, veterans are doing better in all these categories than their non-veteran counterparts. It's vital that we make this distinction, lest we falsely blame service for problems better explained by other variables.

A classic case of that was a poignant Atlantic essay by Iraq War vet Alex Horton, "Lonely Men on Campus: Student Veterans Struggle to Fit In." It tells the tale of three veterans of our recent conflicts who left the service to go to college, only to find that they had little in common with students who hadn't shared their life-altering experiences. Theirs is an important story; we lure a lot of men and women into military service with the promise of paying for their education. We should ensure them the best possible chance of collecting on that debt with solid transitional counseling and on campus services.

But it's just as important not to let anecdotal evidence mislead us into thinking that most veterans are struggling to cope with life outside the structure of the service. That couldn't be further from the truth. Indeed, according to the Census Department, America's veterans are more likely to have a high school diploma than non-veterans, and have a much higher median income.

That's not surprising, when you think about it. While the public may see veterans as saps who volunteered to do a dangerous job because they lacked other options, the fact of the matter is that simply getting into the military requires meeting demanding thresholds of physical and mental health, passing a criminal background check, and having a high school diploma. After selection, many wash out during entry-level training. I'm by no means arguing that every man or woman who's ever served in our armed forces is a candidate for MENSA. But the selection process weeds out the weakest elements, and the training and mentoring system inculcates work habits and social skills that are invaluable in coping with life.

But we have to compare apples to apples. So, for example, when we look at the veterans in Horton's piece who were struggling in college, we see they were different from the rest of the gang in rather important other ways as well. They were a decade older than their peers. They held demanding jobs in addition to going to class. One had two small children. It's hardly surprising that they didn't fit in with 18-year-old kids just out of high school; their combat service was the least of their differences.

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James Joyner is an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

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