Veterans: A Forgotten Demographic, A Necessary Dialogue


My Uncle Bobby and I shared many passions in life: bagels, the Beatles, and mallomar cookies. On the subject of politics, however, we often met an impasse, but I always appreciated his respect for my position as a moderate Democrat. Nevertheless, we shared a common pride for Bobby’s son--my cousin, Josh--who served our country as a Marine on tours of Haiti, the Horn of Africa, and Afghanistan. This pride also lent itself to a united concern for the range of issues veterans face in our country today. We spoke about how inadequate mental health treatment, civilian unemployment, and financial insecurity all make the transition back to civilian life a difficult and taxing process for veterans of all backgrounds. We agreed that the basic life skills, discipline, and sense of responsibility instilled in service members was a good thing. What we never spoke about, before Uncle Bobby passed away unexpectedly last month, was my responsibility, as someone not actively seeking duty, to force a dialogue on this issue and urge college-age students to take action.

Without the firsthand experience of a family member in service, though, many young adults today exhibit a seeming passivity toward the debilitating issues our veterans face each day. While frustrating, this is not surprising: the US government and the American people uncomfortably struggle with the question of exactly what is owed to our veterans. For a generation that has grown up alongside the global war on terror, the apparent apathy among young Americans toward veterans seems strange. On the whole, this population has expressed declining interest in veterans’ issues and a wide deficiency of knowledge concerning basic military functions, which in turn leads to a dearth of support and understanding for the positive contributions service members make to the rest of American society. While today’s college students do not exhibit an open hostility towards service members as did the individuals who experienced the Vietnam War, they only offer apathy. Digging deeper, this particular issue is simply not on the minds of most college students–the United States is not at war, and we no longer have a draft. We must change this mindset by thanking and supporting veterans for their service--a service my fellow college students and I would not even consider. We then need to capitalize on what is left on the table--a lack of hostility, a generation that wants to do the right thing, and potential receptiveness--to encourage young people to advocate for veterans’ issues nationally.

Returning from duty often proves challenging for most veterans, particularly with regard to civilian employment. According to Prudential’s “Veterans’ Employment Challenges” Report, 34% of veterans indicated that they had not received any form of support or training for transitioning to the civilian workforce. Coupled with the fact that 44% of veterans stated that they did not feel ready to transition to the civilian workforce, it has become abundantly clear that additional accessible training programs must be established to ensure that retired members of our armed forces are able to begin new careers following their service.

In addition to obtaining civilian employment, veterans face a unique set of financial issues. Credit card debt, housing complications, and the negative experience of signing up for benefits are common among individuals who have completed their service. Particularly with regards to benefits, many veterans are uncomfortable with asking for assistance. Such apprehension may be due to the fact that the ability to manage oneself and one’s emotions is integral to military culture. Therefore, relying on others for help, particularly with regards to finances, may seem antithetical to these ingrained values. This is an issue that is often compounded by family-related financial stress accompanying many military marriages. Increasing awareness of existing programs and benefits will prove valuable in assisting with such issues both for service members and their families.

Generally, transitioning back to civilian life can be an incredibly demanding and painful experience for some veterans. Let’s face it: civilian jobs are often different than most military assignments. While serving within the military, individuals act within a strict institutional hierarchy, learn specific technical skills necessary to operate weaponry and machinery, and are constantly subject to high-stakes situations. This expertise does not necessarily ensure success in civilian life. While the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees have an existing program to educate veterans on their benefits, such initiatives are not as effective and beneficial as they could be, given their brevity and the fact that they do not offer counsel on such aforementioned institutional differentiations between military and civilian life.

An issue that many veterans cited as hindering with regards to their transition to civilian life was the physical and mental health consequences of war. Nearly 1 in 4 active duty members show signs of a mental health condition, an outrageous statistic. The three major service-related disorders are depression, PTSD, and traumatic brain injuries, with nearly 20% of those who served either in Iraq or Afghanistan suffering from such issues. Such statistics signal a crisis that is occurring within our country that necessitates support. A lack of access to adequate mental health services has contributed to the alarmingly high suicide rates amongst veterans, increasing by more than 18% between 2011 and 2014. A shortage of mental health personnel coupled with a general lack of national support with regard to this crisis has resulted in such an absence in services. The Bureau of Veterans’ Affairs lacks the logistical framework to create strong physical and mental health support programs, such as basic transportation to and from VA appointments. This is not something most Americans want to discuss, regardless of what they feel is owed or not owed to returning Marines, soldiers, airmen and sailors. This conversation needs to happen. We need to provide mental health services, starting at the VA. Perhaps a collaboration between the VA, private, and non-profit health providers could prove beneficial in combating such an issue.

Young Americans interested in helping veterans can offer support in a number of ways. By volunteering with organizations such as Building Homes for Heroes, individuals can help physically injured veterans combat financial insecurities by providing them with fully functioning homes that promote their independence. An additional way to assist veterans with physical injuries is to train or support the training of a service dog; Patriot Paws and Puppy Jake are two organizations that do so. Individuals can also assist in increasing employment for veterans by promoting organizations such as Hire Heroes, which provide mock interviews, career counseling, and job searches. Even if you do not support or agree with specific military conflicts or our government’s motives, you must remember that service members are risking their lives each day to protect our freedom. We owe veterans meaningful and ongoing support. More must be done; young Americans need to reaffirm our nation’s promises and commitments to veterans.

Sophia Houdaigui