OPED: We must meet the unique needs of post-9/11 veterans

Meaghan Mobbs
Special To Tribune News Service
Cpl. Marco Garza with the United States Marine Corp greets spectators along Front St. during the Southeast North Carolina Veterans Day Parade in downtown Wilmington, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. (Matt Born/The Star-News via AP)

Humanity has been at peace for just 8 percent of recorded history. While the origins, causes and meanings are debatable within their own fields of study, war appears to be an indelible human endeavor. While the hope and purpose of a democratic society is to only send its military to battle when all other non-violent options have been exhausted, our nation has been at war 222 out of 239 years.

Before conscription was abolished, the draft, in various forms, was used six times: the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam. While every military person, unless they give their last full measure of devotion, becomes a veteran regardless of combat service, of the 20.4 million living veterans, 77 percent of that population served during wartime. To date, Gulf-War era veterans, which includes the post-9/11 global war on terror (GWOT) generation, account for the largest share of the veteran population. There are now more wartime all-volunteer veterans than wartime drafted veterans.

Over the past 17 years our military has endured the longest protracted war in our nation’s history, fought by men and women who chose to serve. The shifting landscape and composition of our veteran population has been largely obscured as the Department of Veterans Affairs and the “Big 6” veteran service organizations (VSOs) have scrambled to meet the increasing and complex needs of our aging Vietnam Veterans.

It takes time, resources, and concentrated effort to understand the unique nature of every conflict. For example, it was not until 1994, nearly 30 years after our entrance into Vietnam, that “Veterans and Agent Orange” was published by the Institute of Medicine establishing the carcinogenic nature of the defoliant. It will be many years before the revelation of the full psychological and physical impact of our recent military campaigns are made known. Frankly, we do not yet know the hallmarks of the GWOT. It remains highly possible, if not probable, that the social, psychological and physical needs of the youngest generation of veterans will differ vastly from the men and women who have gone before.

Even without taking into account the differences in warfare between generations of combat veterans, most GWOT veterans are already different, simply by the nature of their volunteering. There is potentially something psychosocially unique about that act. Moreover, they look different. Literally. This subset of the veteran population is younger and more gender, racially and ethnically diverse. Taken together, the psychological and physical differences, it suggests a distinctiveness about this group of veterans.

With less than 1 percent of our population having served in Iraq or Afghanistan, there are entire towns across America whose families have not sent a single son or daughter to war. George Washington feared this possibility and remarked, “When we assumed the Solider, we did not lay aside the Citizen.”

While post-traumatic stress disorder, a devastating psychological condition, chronically afflicts about 7 percent of all veterans, we are failing to engage a different enemy on a much bigger front: “transition stresses.” The stress of returning to the dramatically different circumstance of civilian life affects between 44 percent and 72 percent of all veterans. In short, coming home is causing more problems than war itself.

Most post-9/11 veterans believe that the civilian public does not understand the problems faced by those in the military or by their families, a belief also shared by the majority of the general public. Another survey found that roughly 40 percent of civilians believe that the majority of the 2.8 million post-9/11 veterans suffer from a mental health condition, a belief not born by fact. In addition, approximately half of civilians say the wars have made little difference in their lives, while 40 percent of veterans report “getting socialized to civilian culture” as a key transitional challenge.

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Nick Aiken, 5, salutes during the Southeast North Carolina Veterans Day Parade in downtown Wilmington, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. (Matt Born/The Star-News via AP)

Until recently, there has been a failure to appreciate the collective complexity of the transition into and out of the military for an all-volunteer force. The struggle with the transition from military to civilian life is reported at higher, more difficult levels for post-9/11 veterans than those who served in any other previous conflict or in peacetime. Critically, transition stress has been found to predict both treatment seeking and the later development of mental and physical health problems, including suicidal ideation. What is more, the majority of first suicide attempts by GWOT veterans typically occur during their first year post-military separation.

Is it possible that it’s society that is “broken,” and not our warriors? While there is no concrete data to indicate disparity rates between the civilian and veteran experience, a cursory internet search returns articles like: The Civilian-Veteran Survival Field Manual; Veterans Employment Toolkit: Common Challenges During Re-adjustment to Civilian Life; The Case For Sticking Close To Your Veteran Community, suggesting that the veteran community feels at increasing odds with the civilian community at large and vice versa.

As we move to honor our veterans this Veterans Day, let us not forget our obligation to them does not end at midnight. Our veterans deserve the best we can offer. When it comes to care, war trauma is real, but it’s far from the whole story. Certainly, PTSD merits continued research but a narrow focus on that single condition reinforces the common and false stereotype of veterans — especially those who have seen combat — as severely traumatized, unstable individuals. We desperately need to fund more and different research to understand precisely how transition stresses play out for different kinds of individuals. If we fail to see every veteran, and generation of veterans, as unique and requiring individual consideration, the seemingly mandated “thank you for your service,” becomes nothing more than that – paltry words offered once a year, by a disengaged public willfully ignorant of the complexity of service.

— Meaghan Mobbs is a clinical psychology predoctoral fellow at Columbia University where she researches, speaks, and writes extensively about modern day military and veteran issues. The lead blogger of Psychology Today’s only military and veteran centered blog, The Debrief, her work has also appeared in Task & Purpose, Chronicles of Higher Education, Clinical Psychology Review, and various other publications.