WHY AMERICAN VETERANS SUFFER

Robert Dole served America well. A politician who achieved the status of statesman with his governmental service to the nation. He supported legislation to assist disabled people and others who needed assistance through no fault of their own.

He was also a grievously wounded veteran of World War II. Dole’s bodily wounds were significant. But they did not have a serious impact on his emotions or mental capacity. He redirected his energies in ways that overcame depression and ongoing anxiety.

People who have never served in the military can only imagine why veterans are suicidal or despondent to the point of being dysfunctional. They do not understand why veterans so often turn to alcohol and drugs. They do not understand why some cannot hold jobs, succeed in marriages, or become alienated from their own children. Nonveterans are puzzled over the anger they often encounter. Why those who served our nation honorably are homeless or in some other way dependent.

Nonveterans today feel gratitude toward veterans and thank them for their service on a regular basis. One reason is because the draft was eliminated in 1973. Our military now depends on volunteers.

A large military is no longer necessary in this era in which nations have such a technological advantage. Less than 8% of Americans are now veterans.

Why do we thank veterans? What do we really know about their sacrifices? Why do so many suffer?

Certainly, combat experiences such as Dole’s cause suffering. Sure, combat experiences play a major role for those in live fire action. Especially if they were wounded. Viewed others being killed or grievously hurt. Experienced battle-related deprivations.

Only a small percentage of veterans have been directly involved in a shooting war. Most veterans were in support roles of some kind. Intensely trained to be in a conflict that never happened. That was my experience. Trained as a tank platoon leader and company commander for possible deployment to fight the USSR during the Berlin Wall or Cuban Missile crises.

Why do so many veterans suffer?  Let’s start with some basics:

  1. Most veterans were in their late teens or early twenties when they joined the military. Their reasons for joining may have patriotic underpinnings. Their motivation to join may have been for personal reasons. To start their adult lives personally or vocationally. An alternative to attending college or an entry level civilian job.
  • The military culture, while very demanding, is orderly and sustaining. Rules must be obeyed. Work processes are prescribed. Lodging, meals, and clothing are provided at subsistence levels. Medical services are provided. Other support systems are in place.
  • The military offers opportunities for travel and other exciting or enjoyable experiences. Until the assignment becomes stressful and frightening.

Conflicting aspects of the military:

  1. The military is quite hidebound when it comes to personal behavior. On the surface it seems extremely moralistic. Those rules of behavior, while frequently winked at, give the military a righteous look and feel. However, its fundamental mission is the exercise of violence for the purpose of dominating or killing an enemy. In psychological terms, this mission creates a high level of “cognitive dissonance.” Especially among those raised with religious admonitions related to sustaining life and providing care for others.
  • Various kinds of fear are prevalent in the military. Obviously, the fear associated with being in harm’s way is the most powerful. But fear can also be associated with the kind of work being done: dangerous equipment, weapons, and substances. The fear of making a mistake or a bad decision. The injury or death of fellow service members.
  • The military is like a big family. Its members are well taken care of so long as they follow the rules and make good contributions. It feels like something bigger than we are. It makes us feel more important than most civilians.
  • The military gives its members a sense of purpose rarely experienced in civilian life. Dole had a well-defined purpose before he joined the Army and stuck with it. Many honorably discharged soldiers do not have a contingent purpose in life. They do not know how to create one with dedicated follow-through.
  • Because the military can have a family feel, the sense of camaraderie can be intense, even in peacetime. During combat or rigorous preparation for an expected conflict, the emotional connections become even more powerful. Civilian life offers nothing like it unless a veteran joins the police or first responders.

The Veteran’s Administration and those who counsel men and women leaving the military try to help veterans overcome their problems. Typically, fellow veterans make the best counselors and helpmates.

Fellow church members may help the veteran with day-to-day struggles. Help the veteran work through emotional and practical problems.

Most of all, a church can replicate the sense of family and purpose a veteran once felt. Dedication to a worthy purpose. A sense of goal-directed camaraderie. Comfort associated with close human contact and community. And mutual emotional bulwarks as one faces the certainty of physical decline and death.

©2022 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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