The latest statistics on post-9/11 members of the Armed Forces estimate that 20% will experience combat-related post-traumatic stress. The number for Vietnam Veterans is closer to 30%, but perhaps more than any other conflict in history, our current wartime era has brought attention to the injuries our fighting men and women must overcome, including post-traumatic stress…an injury that is a normal human response to trauma, be it wartime or peacetime.
Human beings are innately equipped to process post-traumatic stress. Our physical bodies and psyches seem to evolve — even transform — through such injuries, and we become more resilient and resourceful as a result. The Wounded Warrior Project has helped countless Service members find a new mobility after battleground injuries — physical, mental and emotional. Terms such as “neuroplasticity,” unheard of during the Vietnam conflict, are now accepted medical lingo for describing the brain’s own ability to re-wire itself around physical damage, including traumatic brain injury, whether suffered on the battlefield or the playing field.
There are thousands of government and non-government organizations, professionals, non- and for-profit organizations dedicated and willing to meet the needs of the most at-risk Service members and Veterans in every possible way. Injuries suffered by those who defend their homeland deserve treatment without delay; injuries to those deployed abroad by the homeland may be more difficult to justify, but those injured in the line of duty deserve the very same standard of care. This is the right and honorable thing to do, and we can thank Vietnam era Veteran advocates for their political sacrifice that paved the way for today’s post-9/11 Service members and Veterans to receive better health care and services.
Unfortunately, our system of care in America is victim-based. That is, we diagnose issues as a “disorder” or an “illness” rather than an “injury” and treat these issues as if they must be “cured” rather than integrated into our psyches and day to day lives. Our helping programs are designed to find and treat the most at-risk members of society which is noble…except that many of those at-risk folks may not actually be “victims” of anything.
The combat infantryman who gets blown up can be severely hurt, yes, but that’s part of the battle. In no way does getting blown up suddenly turn a soldier into a victim; getting blown up is not the same as being the target of some premeditated crime or random accident. It was the soldier’s choice to be on the battlefield, and it’s his mission to win that battle, even if he returns from it — or to it — with physical, mental or emotional injuries. Battle scars? Cost of doing business. No pro football player leaves the field on a stretcher thinking of himself as a victim — I hope….
So this blog is not about victims. It’s about the Veterans no one seems to be is talking about.
With great respect for the 20% of post/9-11 Veterans and 30% of Vietnam era Veterans with diagnosable post-traumatic stress, we have to ask ourselves: What we are doing for and with the 80%?
The 80% are the Service members who leave active duty and engage successfully with life as a civilian. Some become leaders, true, but the vast majority settle into lives, careers and marriages with a level of success that takes them out of the at-risk pool, at least for a while.
The 80% are the Service members, now civilians, who take their active duty service into their new roles as fathers, mothers, businesspeople, researchers, administrators, entrepreneurs, coaches, mentors, counselors. They quietly — in most cases — become a part of the fabric of their community, church, office, school, business or service organization.
The 80% are sometimes first responders — they have the training. They are sometimes team leaders, just as they were in combat. They are machinists, software or civil architects, tow truck drivers, government bureaucrats or elected officials. They have the skills to engage opportunity, at whatever level, and they take it.
The 80% are the Veterans we hear and see in “hire a Vet”advertisements.
The 80% may not be the youngest rising stars, but they are the ones with experience and savvy beyond their years.
The 80% — less than one million people — are the ones quietly doing exceptional things in civilian life. They are working hard — sometimes to climb the ladder of achievement, sometimes to stay out of the at-risk pool — to make a contribution to the rest of us. They know how to make a contribution and they are unstoppable.
Some among the 80% are also living with unseen injuries; some have learned how those injuries have changed them forever and some have yet to learn it.
With so much of the country paying attention to the 20%, are we missing what’s happening with the 80%? What could we learn from them?
More importantly, how would we learn it?
The 80% like to merge into civilian life. For some, the medals and stories and tools of war are put aside but never forgotten, but never a part of civilian life. The qualities of being a Service member remain, but the tools of the new trade are not battlefield weaponry. Getting a Veteran to help the rest of us connect the dots between the qualities of being in Service and the sound of those qualities in the music of civilian life is a difficult thing…Veterans aren’t generally built like that.
We aren’t going to be able to do an evidence-based study on the 80% — many institutions of higher learning and research think tanks like to try, but the truth is that funding for studying the “normal” isn’t as rich as funding for studying the “abnormal” so we are missing much opportunity to understand what makes the 80% work.
Although it’s “unscientific” as a method, if we want to learn from the 80%, we can simply watch what they do. We can confirm that Veteran qualities which “work” in civilian life have merit. We can use this “anecdotal” evidence to help all of society benefit. We can model the successful character traits as parents, business leaders, professionals, and teachers — from elementary to university — and watch for a performance boost in academics and in life.
Yes, it won’t work for everyone, but I believe we do have a shot at some real change here. By making a real effort to learn from the 80%, we may be able to make a wider collective change in society at large than targeting all our resources on the 20%. The truth is, we don’t presently have the sorts of organizations we will need to help the 80% serve us. True, there are a few non-profits in the Veterans sector with a clear civic opportunity mission instead of a crisis-driven response mission, but we will need more institutions that support things like entrepreneurism, purpose-driven businesses and adult development, if we are to really capitalize on what today’s Veterans have to teach us.
Let’s reach the 80%, not so much with services, but with open, teachable minds. Let’s learn what’s working for the 80% and use that knowledge to re-inspire our existing programs and help us create new ones. Let’s reframe our response to the opportunity today’s Veterans present. Instead of a focus on woundedness, let us encourage a focus on wonderfulness. A Veteran that succeeds in civilian life doesn’t do it alone; civilians are a part of that trajectory, too.
Military service is not an easy choice in a world where military strength is so politicized.
I suspect the Veteran who enjoys success in civilian life gives and receives respect from his or her colleagues, gives and receives honor, gives and receives teamwork, gives and receives friendship. I suspect that the qualities and character of a successful Veteran inspire his or her civilian peers — not because of the ribbons and medals of valor but because we civilians understand that taking the oath of military service can be an exceptionally humbling, difficult and powerful promise. The 80% of Veterans who have made that promise are people I want to know.
How about you?