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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Robert Brescia
November 14, 2014
I was privileged to speak at a Veteran’s Day ceremony at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin (UTPB). When asked, I thought, “Gosh, what a privilege to talk about our veterans from UTPB, Texas and the nation.” But I would not be so bold to speak on behalf of all veterans any more than I would to speak on behalf of all public leadership institute directors. So my comments were more descriptive than representative and encouraged an appreciation of the individuality of all those who sport the title of “veteran.”
I have come to understand that being a veteran can feel differently according to each veteran’s period of service and for each individual veteran within those eras. We are not a monolithic group any more than the general population is.
World War II vets mostly came home to rousing celebrations and ticker-tape parades in New York City – a hero’s welcome by any measure.
The Korean War, generally called the “forgotten war,” saw veterans who simply “returned” to their homes and in many case, just went quiet.
Vietnam War veterans, average age of 19 (versus age 26 for WW II), experienced combat operations almost continuously during their 1-year postings. They came home to a mixed bag of welcome—ranging from complete shunning to serene and respectful acknowledgement usually done in private family settings. Many of our beloved Vietnam War era vets can unfortunately still remember folks rolling down the windows of their cars, spitting in their direction and calling them “baby killers.”
Today’s veterans belong to two groups: Gulf War Era I (1990 to 2001) and Gulf War Era II (2001 to present). Gulf War Era I vets participated in a carefully orchestrated battle campaign that involved a powerful international coalition on the left and right flanks that succeeded in driving Iraqi forces from Kuwait. And for those who might believe that the United States is more of a threat to world peace than ISIL is, or that the United States is an imperialist nation that acts from motives of securing oil interests abroad, I would remind you that it was the Iraqis who invaded Kuwait to secure Kuwait’s high-producing oil wells. As Iraqis forces were being driven back to their own country, they burned as many of those Kuwaiti wells as possible. I can tell you this because I saw it happen.
Gulf War Era II vets, whose median age is 31, are seeing more combat and experiencing more injuries over a much longer period of time. Era II vets seem to resemble Vietnam Era vets more and more every day. Battle stress and fatigue, family separation issues and post-traumatic stress disorder are taking their toll on these heroes. In this group, 26 percent of these vets have service-connected disabilities versus 20 percent of those in my own group, the Gulf War Era I vets. The top two categories of disabilities in this group are ambulatory and hearing.
Someone stated recently that modern-day veterans like to remain somewhat in the shadows and not draw attention to themselves. They tend to minimize their veteran status or identity. I think that this happens for several reasons – first, we are taught as military members that the collective win and praise is far more important than individual recognition. That truism has survived the various eras of veterans. Whenever you see a veteran seeking media fame and visibility for his actions, this is the exception and not the rule. I always tell the people who have worked for me over the years, “the minute we start believing our own press, we are in trouble.”
One exemplar of selfless service is our new University of Texas Chancellor, Admiral Bill McRaven (Ret.). Admiral McRaven oversaw the planning and execution of special operation that ended the life of Osama bin Laden. Currently, Bill appears focused on empowering and enabling all of the UT campuses to be the best that they can be. He is a veteran that consistently looks forward, not backward.
Other reasons for veteran reticence include personal safety and security. Departing veterans are counseled to not go into a lot of detail about their experiences, especially those who have been involved in intelligence-gathering operations and sensitive missions emanating from national security directives.
The final reason, but certainly there are many more, is that veterans take different amounts of time to process what has happened to them in repeated combat deployment, family separations, financial crises and challenges, etc. They can “go quiet” during this processing stage and may seek some measure of seclusion so as to reflect and come to grips with their reintegration to community.
Remember – not every vet has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But every vet does have to go through a transition back to social community and life as it was before they left. We need to do everything that we can to help Era II vets reintegrate back into their communities.
You can now readily see that unlike this article’s title, there is no profile of all veterans. We are all individuals and we want to be treated individually.
The obstacles to a veteran’s access to and achievement of the America Dream are many. A sizable percentage of returning veterans wind up homeless and about a fifth of those are women. A greater percentage than that are on food stamps. A greater percentage than that cannot get care at their local Veterans Affairs facility.
As military service members, these veterans postponed their civilian careers and education for the higher calling of defending our way of life. For our part, let us not postpone our help to them as they return to their communities, resume the lives and rejoin the families.