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. 


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.

For a more accurate picture, we should be comparing these college-going veterans with other non-traditional students. Almost by definition, someone who starts university at 28 is different from cohorts who started at 18. They were probably already different coming out of high school in terms of academic aptitude, family structure, socioeconomic status, or some combination of factors. Males, who make up 94 percent of the veteran population, are much less likely to go to college than females throughout the overall population. The military also disproportionately attracts young people from the South and rural areas, as well as those whose parents attended college themselves. All of these factors make it significantly less likely for any person to attend college, military experience or not.

A non-veteran who enrolled in college after several years working in entry-level jobs might also show up on campus with emotional scars and a worldlier outlook than fresh-faced, optimistic kids who don't know better. And studies have shown that they're much more likely than traditional students to feel isolated and frustrated.

As with their non-traditional peers, a lot of veterans who start college later in life don't make it. For that matter, neither do roughly 40 percent of those who do go to college right out of high school. Many may not have been prepared for college to begin with. In other cases, life may have intervened and the need to earn a paycheck trumped the desire for further education.

Being a veteran doesn't guarantee you smooth sailing the rest of your life, but it doesn't sentence you to a life of struggle, either. There's no doubt that getting shot at and seeing friends killed in explosions are life-changing experiences. But most veterans, even those deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, don't have those experiences. And even most of those who do come away from them without any permanent damage.

Some, alas, do. It's criminal that we haven't done a better job of figuring out how to deal with post-traumatic stress and aren't providing maximum resources to the minority of veterans who suffer with it. We owe it to them.

Otherwise, though, veterans don't need our pity. Most of us got out with our physical and mental health intact, along with valuable leadership training, improved confidence, and transferable job skills. Additionally, many of us qualified for and took advantage of a generous benefits package, including the G.I. Bill.

And, it's worth noting, the last few generations of veterans were all volunteers; we haven't had a draft since 1973. For that matter, the 11th anniversary of 9/11 is fast approaching; that means all of our junior enlisted personnel and most of our junior officers volunteered during wartime. We chose to serve our country, got paid pretty well to do it, and reaped plenty of other benefits, tangible and otherwise.

We owe those who suffered permanent wounds, physical or psychological, the best care we can give them. We owe the families of those who never came home our sympathies, support, and generous benefits.

Speaking for the rest of us--the vast majority of those who served--you don't owe us anything. Indeed, as Andrew Exum, who led Army Rangers in both Iraq and Afghanistan, argues, you're probably already doing too much. You don't need to stop us and thank us for our service; you already paid us for it.

And you sure as hell don't need to feel sorry for us. On the whole, we're doing better than the rest of you.