BY RYAN NORTON As we reflect on the sacrifices of our military service members this Veterans Day, we should consider that this will be the last in which our service members are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. By this time next year, only a residual force with a non-combat mission will be in Afghanistan. Additionally, with sequestration trimming the Defense Department budget by $500 billion on top of the already $487 billion in projected cuts, tens of thousands of troops will be released from active duty. It is therefore time to reframe the way in which we view our military service members and our veterans from these two conflicts. It is time to shift from praising only their military service to highlighting and supporting the good they can and are doing back home.
Today, one friend captured this sentiment by saying, “If my service in these wars is my only contribution to my country, then I have failed miserably.” Fortunately, there are many great programs and organizations available that help to transition veterans. For example, my colleagues are benefitting from the Post 9/11 GI Bill, corporate leadership and mentorship programs, and scholarships through organizations like the Pat Tillman Foundation. These types of programs respect military service, but recognize that each service member must now face the hard work of furthering their education and sustaining a career. Many veterans have chosen public service and have taken positions in government or the nonprofit sector, realizing that their service didn’t end when they took off the uniform.
Yet, not every service member leaves active duty with such clarity of purpose. Yesterday, in The Atlantic, a veteran described the “pedestal problem” and argued that to help veterans we must start treating them more like normal people. This op-ed captured two of my long-time, interrelated observations. First, the glorification of the military by a well-intentioned public and a professional force that in-turn reinforces this narrative. Second, the subsequently harsh adjustment phase for those that leave active duty and who may not have realized that help from the civilian world too often ends at halftime salutes and free meals at Applebee’s. From introductions by military recruiters to stump speeches by senior leaders, the narrative that the military is a higher calling or sacred duty is constantly reinforced.
This pedestal treatment and the handouts keep the rank and file service members satiated, but it’s to the detriment of those that move on unprepared for the realities of the civilian world. This problem is only complicated by the thousands of injured or mentally traumatized veterans who continue to struggle through the Veterans Administration backlog. In a hyper-competitive, globalized economy, parades or free meals are great, but job training programs, scholarships, and efficient care services are even better. As the author put it, the pedestal problem, “produces extremes—the valiant hero or the downtrodden unstable veterans.” The silent majority in the middle needs more attention.
For most the military was a temporary job to serve our country, travel, gain experience, pay for college, and move on. We would never claim that our commitment is deeper than the thousands of teachers, policemen, and other public servants who sacrifice their time and potential pay for the greater good. When the public celebrates veterans, we shouldn’t celebrate them as otherworldly superheroes, but citizen soldiers that are part of our communities. Honor their service by trying to understand what it was they did and support them as they move on with their new lives. In or out of uniform, we still have to be at the office or class on Tuesday morning. Let’s make sure each veteran is prepared to do so.