Our vets have a mission, and Veterans Day is a good time to honor them by honoring it. The vets I know want to bring the values they embraced while they were on active duty into their post-military life. They want to keep on serving their country with skill and dignity, purpose, and love. And they want Americans to understand and support this mission.
“Many veterans are fed up with politicians, so many of who seem “like spoiled brats: they should all stop the stupidity,” one ex-Marine suggested not long ago, “stop arguing for the sake of arguing. Though they are perhaps too modest to say it directly, it is clear that many vets want our politicians to learn the lessons of caring and service that have sustained them; to bridge their political, ideological, and ethnic differences as military men and women must; to care for those, and not just vets, who are most vulnerable; and to embrace selfless concern for a world that they well know is fragile and in danger.”
I can’t speak for all of our vets. Actually, I can’t speak for any of them. But I can tell you some of what I’ve learned in 20 years of helping active duty military and vets find relief and learn from the trauma of combat and deal with the challenges of returning to civilian life.
Here’s a bottom line. Some vets are disillusioned with the aims of the wars they fought and troubled by the politicians who rationalized and glorified sacrifices that now seem unnecessary.
Others feel the wars were necessary, but deeply regret the deaths of the innocents who were their “collateral damage.” But virtually all miss the commitment to a mission, the satisfaction of discipline, and the self-respect that comes from doing one’s duty, and, especially, the selfless loving connections to those who served and fought alongside them.
I hear it from them in small groups, in informal gatherings around the country, and in VA hospital training programs where my Center for Mind-Body Medicine colleagues and I teach clinicians and peer counselors the principles and practices of self-care and group support.
And there are specific ways that veterans suggest – profanely as well as politely that our country can better meet their needs and honor their service. Here are some.
• Listen to what vets have to say. Paying attention to who they are and what they believe can be most helpful to them. This is a matter of basic respect. It is also essential in health care settings; countless vets have told me that they don’t want the pills that many doctors insist on prescribing to reduce anxiety, prop up their moods, or enhance sleep. They are hoping for time with sympathetic clinicians, and want to use non-drug alternatives – like meditation and martial arts, healthy eating, and acupuncture – to help themselves. They know that the VA is beginning to offer these possibilities. And they want everyone who works in the system to take a good long look at the evidence for them and to tune in to what they, the vets, are saying.
Vets also want to be heard more clearly and respectfully outside of the medical examining room: by the people who determine their benefits and are tasked with helping them with housing, social welfare, and education.
•Provide a time and place to transition from military to civilian life, from combat-ready to domestic friendly. Not a week of R and R and lectures in Kuwait, but a genuine rite of passage, like the many indigenous people offer their warriors – a time of loving support that invites vets to grieve and shout and share, to let go of what has happened and to prepare for what is coming.
•Ensure that all vets can participate in ongoing programs of self-care that will help them deal with the post-traumatic stress of having served, and also the stressful challenges of reintegrating into families from which they’ve been absent, and a civilian world which may seem alienating as well as alien.
Vets tend to be practical people who enjoy learning and using new skills that quickly produce desired results. In my experience, they thrive on being actively involved in their own care – making changes in diet and exercise, using meditation to quiet stress and dissolve tension, and mobilizing their imagination to solve real-life problems.
•Focus more of our therapeutic and social welfare efforts on working with groups of veterans. Small groups are the units of military training, of daily active duty routines, and of combat. Except in emergencies, vets often resist individual encounters with physicians and therapists. Many say that when they seek psychological services they feel objectified and stigmatized. They welcome groups where they are encouraged, but not forced, to share what they are thinking and feeling, where they are respected as students learning skills, not diagnosed and treated as patients.
And membership in these groups makes many vets far more comfortable when they do need to seek out necessary individual care.
•Integrating family members into these programs. When vets introduce themselves in group meetings, they most often begin by describing their family connections: “I am a husband and father” or
“wife and mother” or “son” or “daughter.” The isolation of vets who live with as well as outside of families is a major contributor to the depression that predisposes them to the high rates of suicide that still plague those who have served. We need to honor and support their families as well as the vets.
•Take veterans’ critique of our civilian world to heart, and learn from and act on it. A couple of weeks ago, a former Marine confided to our small group that “when I started executive training I felt like I was crazy. Everyone seemed just out for themselves. They just wanted to make money. Nobody cared about the mission.” The other members of our group nodded in sad agreement.
The most fulfilled vets I know are helping other vets and their families: an Army officer, who was devastated by the loss of soldiers he commanded in Iraq has created an intentional living community for disabled vets; a former enlisted man is doing job counseling; a
Vietnam vet who was for years a homeless addict is now counseling
homeless women and men; and many of the VA Whole Health Coaches with whom I work were enlisted women and men who went to school to become licensed practical nurses so they could serve their brothers and sisters.
And those who don’t work at these jobs, often volunteer. Helping other vets is a mission that helps so many vets to live with greater meaning, purpose, and joy.
•Finally, many veterans are fed up with politicians, so many of whom seem “like spoiled brats: they should all stop the stupidity,” one ex-Marine suggested not long ago, “stop arguing for the sake of arguing.”
Though they are perhaps too modest to say it directly, it is clear that many vets want our politicians to learn the lessons of caring and service that have sustained them; to bridge their political, ideological, and ethnic differences as military men and women must; to care for those, and not just vets, who are most vulnerable; and to embrace selfless concern for a world that they well know is fragile and in danger.
These are some of the ways that I hear veterans asking us to truly thank them, today and every day, for their service.