In my May, 2015 blog post I wrote specifically about the topic of post-traumatic stress and military veterans.
But PTS and other service-related injuries are not the only challenges that returning veterans face. For all service members, returning to American civilian life means reentering a society in which the norms, values and training of military culture itself (loyalty, respect, duty, “service before self,” honor, integrity, tradition, and personal courage) are at odds with the values of the society that our military exists to protect: a society which values individual (above group) goals and interests, competition over cooperation, relief from pain over endurance of pain, and personal expression over personal restraint.
As a result, service members returning to civilian life can feel a profound sense of alienation from the very culture they have dedicated their lives to defending and protecting.
For many veterans, the resulting “culture shock” of coming home brings with feelings of disorientation, loneliness and anger, for reasons that civilians may have no way to understand. Add post-traumatic stress to the picture and you’re looking at a world of lonely pain. As one veteran described it to me, “So when some guy cuts me off in traffic, and it sets off HUGE road rage, part if it might be my PTS that’s getting triggered, sure, but part of what gets triggered is moral rage! It’s like, ‘That guy just made his personal desire to get ahead more important than me and everyone else on the road…and that is just so wrong!’”
So what can we civilians do to more genuinely welcome, honor and better understand the veterans among us? Thanking them for their service is an important gesture, to be sure. But we owe them much more: we owe them our active engagement in the ongoing challenges of “coming home.” That might mean learning about and connecting vets and active service members with the kinds of resources available to help them retrain for civilian life, to connect with other vets, and to heal the wounds of war. But it also means actively educating ourselves on military culture and experience.
How? Like with everything these days, there’s lots of information available online at the click of a cursor. But the best way to make that education personal and meaningful is to ask a veteran or service member you know to teach you something about the military experience, from the point of view of their own. While many veterans are reluctant to respond to idle curiosity (and sometimes tactless questions) about their experiences, the same ones may be glad to talk about it with a truly interested, open civilian listener.
And by letting the veteran or service member take and keep control of the conversation, we are likely to receive answers to much better questions than we could ever think of to ask anyway. (For some great examples of how not to start that conversation, check out the YouTube video “Shit Civilians Say to Veterans” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4Esni1RbwU).
As for resources available for vets with transition challenges and service-related injuries: an increasing number of governmental and private, non-profit organizations offer a range of healing and support services for combat veterans and their families, many of them at low or no cost. In each Oregon county, the Veteran’s Support Office (V.S.O.) for that county (V.S.O.s are county government services independent of the V.A.) helps veterans with everything from navigating the VA to connecting with the growing number of education, health, recreation, counseling, financial and other support services available in our local area. For post 9/11-deployed war zone veterans in Oregon and Southwest Washington, the “Returning Veterans Project” (“RVP”) based in Portland provides free (yes, FREE!) counseling and other health services. Similarly, “Give An Hour,” a national non-profit organization, offers free, confidential mental health services to any veteran, active-duty service member, and/or family member who requests services through their organization. In the case of both Give an Hour and RVP, services are donated by licensed professionals with practices in the community (I volunteer with both organizations). For more information and to request services through either organization, visit http://www.returningveterans.org/ or www.giveanhour.org.
There is also a growing number of “veterans-helping-veterans” organizations, both national and local. In Wasco County, the just-established “Outside the Wire” project (which has its own space now in The Dalles Civic Center) is creating opportunities for veterans to come together for creative activity and fun. The project’s band, Got Your Six, plays at the Oregon Veterans’ Home in The Dalles each 2nd and 4th Thursday of the month at 6:00, and the public is welcome. And in Maupin, the annual Poker Run benefit for veterans (June 10 this year; see the notice in the Chamber of Commerce column) is a great way for veterans to enjoy some food and fun together, while raising money for programs which directly support their health and well-being.
If you are a civilian friend or family member of a veteran reading this, consider making a deliberate effort to invite a conversation— not just to satisfy your curiosity, but with the intent of being educated beyond the comfort zone of your preconceptions.
If you are a veteran, I ask for your patience: we civilians may need you to help us to even identify what we need to know, beyond the maybe-thoughtless questions we ask. Thank you for that patience…and truly, for your service.