Help Veterans by Taking Them Off the Pedestal

A former infantryman in Iraq reflects on how the culture of military service has changed since World War II. Unhelpful attitudes from civilians and veterans alike, he says, are making it difficult for today's servicemen to transition back to post-deployment life.
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Veterans Day parades can reinforce the feeling, for recently returned servicemembers, that their best days are behind them. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

My generation of veterans has adopted an odd moniker: The Next Greatest Generation. We grew up watching Band of Brothers and found parallels in this dramatization of World War II experiences to what we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan—brotherhood, sacrifice, the struggle to endure long and bitter conflicts. We’re just as capable as they were, and they changed the world, the thinking goes. We proclaim our greatness at the beginning of the second chapter of our lives.

But there’s a problem with that logic: It means our sense of greatness is derived from that first chapter. While some of the greatest contributions the World War II generation gave this country happened after the war, our self-admiration is based entirely, by contrast, from our time in service.  And that troubling attitude means a continued isolation from the society we left behind.

A recent piece written by Raul Felix, a war veteran in college, is a good example. The author takes a patronizing view toward civilian members of Generation Y, suggesting that they are complacent and lacking worldly wisdom. While the standard “think piece” on the civilian/military divide laments the fissure between the groups, this one champions it: “Your major tests were your finals, ours was going to war,” Felix says. “You heard and read about it from the news; we lived it.”

I once talked to a World War II veteran about the experience of attending college after coming home, and asked if it was jarring to sit next to those who never served. I wondered if veterans huddled together under the umbrella of mutual understanding and thought less of civilians who never shouldered a rifle. His answer was surprising. They were proud of their time in uniform, he said, but for many, the war interrupted their lives, and education was a return to normalcy. Instead of a victory lap, they were more interested in getting back on track.

Perhaps the fact that many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans I’ve talked to take precisely the opposite view is due, in part, to current civilian attitudes. I call it the pedestal problem.

For many civilians, veterans are thought about in the span of football halftime shows, where we gawk at troops standing on the sidelines while the camera lingers on flags flapping in the wind. The word hero is tossed around and abused to the point of banality. The good intentions of civilians are rarely in question, but detached admiration has always been a stand-in for the impulse to do “something” for veterans.

So civilians clap at football games. They applaud returning troops in airports in outward appreciation, satisfied with their magnanimous deeds. Then—for many of them--it’s back to more tangible concerns, like the fragile economy. A veteran’s résumé might come across your desk, but if you’re like more than half of these surveyed hiring managers, you harbor suspicion and fear about post-traumatic stress episodes in the workplace.

That’s the problem with viewing something on a pedestal: you can only see one side at a time, and rarely at depth. It produces extremes—the valiant hero or the downtrodden, unstable veteran.

Thank you for your service. But we’re looking for someone else.

The view from the pedestal has warped the perspective many veterans hold when they leave the service. We call ourselves warriors and worship the Spartan ethos, but don’t always appreciate that our society is detached from our conflicts the way Sparta never was.

The superiority complex on the part of volunteer troops and veterans was described as far back as 1997 and has compounded with two conflicts and countless trying moments that have fed our pride. One could walk the earth for decades before finding a sense of worth and belonging that equaled what some of us experienced while in service.

From the first time we walk into a recruiter’s office to our last out-processing brief, we’re told recognition is exactly what we can expect. We’re ahead of the curve. We can lead and train. We are, we tell ourselves, more prepared than our civilian cohorts.

Unfortunately, many of us have found this isn’t the case, but that chip on our shoulder doesn’t tend to fall off. It leads to frustrating feelings that civilians don’t value our experiences in the workplace or the classroom.

I know I’ve felt that way during my undergrad years at Georgetown University, where I’ve constantly championed my own experiences and perspective over others. After some time, I realized this was self-destructive. I’m here in my senior year to learn just as they are, and my frustrations lead me to understand that I’m both more and less prepared at tackling life than my classmates. Younger students, for example, can look at and discuss the world as if seeing it for the first time. There is value in an uncolored perspective. I have to constantly remind myself not to view everything through the lens of a cynical former door-kicker.  

The intangibles veterans bring are important—discipline, teamwork, leadership. But those things are the icing when we thought they were the cake.We have a completely different mission to gain new expertise and education that complement our military-honed skills. Our task isn’t simply to cram a military circle peg into a civilian square hole. There’s potentially a high price for trying to do that. Younger veterans struggle with employment because it takes some time to recognize the need to be more than the sum of our military experiences and accomplishments. There’s a natural period of underemployment, of course, as veterans gather new credentials, but I fear too many can and will read it as a sign that civilians don’t appreciate them, and in doing so give in to frustrations that can further delay transition into a productive post-deployment life.

The place to begin is to understand ourselves—and what we need to begin defining success after we leave the service. In addition, our society should be less concerned with freebie giveaways and boilerplate op-eds on Veterans Day, and more concerned about how to provide opportunities for our veterans to flourish after their service. There is a trio of veterans organizations dedicated to exactly that. The Mission Continues and Team Rubicon focus on rebuilding community and regaining the sense of mission that dissipated after service. The Pat Tillman Foundation provides continued education for veterans who show potential to lead across all sectors.

All three groups have recognized the work isn’t over for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and what we’ve carried so far is of great use to the country. But follow them closely and you’ll find their members match determination with humility.  There is much to do, and, much to learn.

If you want to contribute something toward veterans in a tangible way without the condescension of giving us baseball tickets and parades, these organizations are a great place to start.

Moving forward will be difficult; in many ways we’re continuing down a path, but in others, we’re beginning one. But there is great promise in what we’ve accomplished, just as World War II veterans understood when they parlayed their grit into something more at home.

It’s time to climb off the pedestal and view our potential from all sides so we can honestly evaluate ourselves and where we’re headed. Veterans Day can become a time when we look forward—and not simply take nostalgic glances into the past, where we foolishly see ourselves as having been the best we’ll ever be.

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Alex Horton served for 15 months as an infantryman in Iraq.

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