Help Veterans by Taking Them Off the Pedestal

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 is a freelance writer on veterans and foreign affairs. His work has been published by The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Washingtonian magazine. He served as an Army infantryman for 15 months in Iraq.

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