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.