When I joined the Army as a 17-year-old, I expected to face many challenges and hardships as an individual – whether that meant getting yelled at or shot at or made to jump out of airplanes. What I didn’t yet understand was how much I’d put aside my individual concerns and focus on my fellow service members – or how much they’d do the same for me. I’d never in my life been in such a supportive social environment.
That might sound odd to some. Getting chewed out for not having your shoes shined hardly seems “supportive.” But that’s just one part of the military experience. In the Army, it mattered to someone else whether my boots fit properly. It mattered to someone else whether I’d been to the dentist recently. It mattered to someone else if I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.
To be sure, all of this attention was in the interests of team performance, but it also meant someone was always there for me. Checking on me. Making sure I was good to go. We all did this for one another. If I was on a road march and a member of my squad was struggling, I would help share his load. If I was on crutches and couldn’t carry my tray in the dining hall, a fellow soldier would be right there to help me. That’s just how it was. We learned to think of others first.
And then you exit the service. No more intrusive surprise health and welfare inspections. No more morning formations. No more of the countless bureaucratic irritations of military life. Paradise, right?
Actually, for many of us, no. Gone, suddenly, is the cohesive structure that existed to take care of you. Gone are the familiar cultural norms. Gone are your friends from your ready-made peer group, who are just as invested in your success as you are in theirs.
News reports carry a lot of disheartening statistics about U.S. Veterans. (Like the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, I capitalize the word “Veterans” to be respectful.) Nearly a fifth of Veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 are jobless. Veterans suffer a 33 percent higher rate of narcotics overdoses than the rest of the population, and their suicide rate is slightly higher, too. People often react to this with pity, assuming that the cause is tied to trauma suffered while in the service.
But I suspect that the main contributor to troubled adjustment to civilian life is something else entirely. When Veterans leave military service, many of them are leaving the most cohesive and helpful social network they’ve ever experienced. And that hurts. They aren’t suffering because they remember what was bad. They’re suffering because they miss what was good.
Of course, many Veterans just power through and do fine. Veterans on average have better health and earn more money than the average American. But others fall short of their potential, simply because they’re missing something and can’t tell what it is.
One friend of mine went from being a combat medic in the Army to a transfer student in the health field at a major university. He got good grades, but none of his efforts to connect with his new peers and replace the social cohesion that he was missing worked. He nearly wound up dropping out of school. He felt isolated and adrift.
For this reason, I think that the social prescription for most Veterans facing challenges in civilian life – whether those challenges are PTSD or a lost limb or simply an inability to maintain steady employment – should be the same: find them a social network to replace the one they lost.
This helped another friend of mine, a smart, capable Marine who floundered so much after being discharged that for a short stretch she was homeless. What rescued her was a stint with AmeriCorps, which gave her a job that led to full-time employment with a national nonprofit. AmeriCorps offered my friend three crucial things: a new mission, a new purpose and a strong social network in which people were invested in one another’s well-being and success.
I am inspired to see that other Veteran service organizations have recognized the importance of a sense of community and renewed purpose. Look at The Mission Continues, a nonprofit that focuses on community service work for Veterans. Organizations like that get it. If civilian life could offer Veterans more of the virtues of military life – accountability, cohesion and a sense of purpose – I suspect you’d hear much less about the “problems” Veterans face and much more about the achievements that come from harnessing such vast energy, discipline and public spirit.