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How Americans Can Do More for Retired Soldiers

Despite some positive trends, society needs to do more to help ease service members back into civilian life.

In March, Albert Wong—a decorated Army veteran who fought in Afghanistan—killed three former caretakers and himself after an hours-long hostage standoff at Pathway Home, a non-profit that provides clinical, educational, and professional support to veterans transitioning back into the civilian world.

Details regarding Wong's background and possible motives are sure to come out in the weeks ahead, but current reports already point to some potentially troubling indicators. Wong's recent expulsion from the program due to threats made toward one of the women killed in the standoff, as well as comments from those who knew about his struggle to re-adjust after leaving the military (his former guardian stated that the trouble he had with re-adjusting to the civilian world "started to catch up to him"), suggests that his case was particularly fraught.

And yet, while this tragedy is, in ways, a rare outcome, it points to the broader challenges members of the military face after they've retired from their services. More specifically, many veterans organizations are doing significant work to support military veterans, thereby helping bear the burdens of war—a critical and underappreciated responsibility of all Americans. As a result, it's important to interrogate what responsible parties are doing about it—and learning about how to do it well.

While soldiers, on joining the military, are immediately sent to boot camp to become immersed in the military's ethos and approach, there's nothing similar for soldiers as they transition out of the military and back into the civilian world. As Michael Blecker, director of Swords to Plowshares, put it when discussing the Pathway House shooting: "The Department of Defense doesn't spend any time on decompression for these guys, there's not enough treatment—then you have an incident like this that makes everyone think vets are walking time bombs, that we should fear them. But vets more than anything need to be integrated back into their communities, not isolated."

Indeed, the government is struggling to adequately help veterans transition. For example, a 2011 Pew Research Center survey of 1,853 veterans found that, compared to their pre-9/11 peers, nearly double the number of post-9/11 veterans found re-integration difficult, nodding to the particular difficulty of transitioning back into the post-9/11 civilian world. Similarly, in a 2014 poll by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, 51 percent of post-9/11 veterans said that the military wasn't doing enough to help them transition. More recently, the Department of Veterans Affairs has come under scrutiny because of a litany of organizational mishaps and shake-ups (the most recent case being the firing of Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin), as well as questions over incompetent or malicious leadership.

But while it's easy to focus on what's not going well—both in regards to veterans' care and veterans themselves—I'm not suggesting that veterans don't benefit from existing government efforts. For example, in the 2014 poll mentioned above, though a majority of veterans said that the government wasn't doing enough to help with the transition, "almost 60 percent say the government's response is 'excellent' or 'good,'" with "more than eight in 10 saying their physical, mental and emotional needs are being well met." Moreover, as Jim Craig—an Army veteran turned professor—notes in his 2017 essay on post-traumatic growth: "The latest employment numbers show that veterans are actually more employed than their civilian counterparts. Veterans volunteer more hours, vote more often, and give more money to charity than their non-veteran peers. These are clear indications of growth, not decay."

Civil Society's Contributions

Veterans, as a group, generally succeed in re-integrating into the civilian world. However, it's also the case that the government has been unable to provide all the services needed to help many veterans who struggle during the transition. Fortunately, a large ecosystem of organizations, including those like Pathway Home, exists to help fill that gap.

By providing veterans with a new mission—whether by building a career, joining a new community of like-minded people, or recovering from war wounds—these sorts of veterans organizations may help explain why veterans in general are doing well, even though homelessness and, in particular, suicide rates among them are alarmingly high.

Take the mission of using skills learned in the military to forge a new career path. Whether technical knowledge, leadership skills, or traits such as an ability to work on teams and attention to detail, veterans have much to offer employers as a result of their military service. Organizations like American Dream U and the American Legion help by providing mentors to work with transitioning veterans, resources for veterans to navigate benefits such as the GI Bill, and assistance during the job search. Finding a job is a key step in helping resolve four central issues identified by Louis Celli, national director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation at the American Legion: "where to live, what to do for employment, how to access health care, and how to find purpose in post-military life."

In addition to assistance with finding work, many veterans organizations have helped foster a sense of community among veterans. As they transition out of a more tight-knit, insular military community and into one where the military represents less than 1 percent of a population that generally lacks understanding of and interest in the military, being able to develop a sense of belonging and contributing to society is critical to the success of many veterans. In turn, organizations such as Team Rubicon, which unites veterans with first responders after natural disasters, assists veterans "with three things they lose after leaving the military: a purpose, gained through disaster relief; community, built by serving with others; and identity, from recognizing the impact one individual can make."

Lastly, and relatedly, a number of organizations focusing on health have been instrumental in providing assistance to veterans struggling the most during the re-integration process. In this case, "health" is broadly defined. For example, the Wounded Warrior Project "serves veterans and service members who incurred a physical or mental injury, illness, or wound" as a result of their time in the military by providing "free programs and services to address the needs of wounded warriors and fill gaps in government care." Another example of health-focused veterans organization is, of course, Pathway Home, the site of the March shooting. Part of the unique tragedy of the shooting there is that the three women killed dedicated their lives specifically to helping struggling veterans. By offering a tight-knit residential community and regular medical and psychological treatment for 450 veterans since its opening in 2008, Pathway Home has saved many veterans on the verge of hitting rock bottom.

Of course, the organizations listed above represent just the tip of the iceberg of organizations dedicated to supporting veterans (and their families) as they transition from military to civilian life. Moreover, many of these organizations provide far more than career, community, or health services. But this small sample nonetheless demonstrates that fully and successfully re-integrating into the civilian world can require assistance in all aspects of life.

Doing More

Despite all that, however, there's still more that can be done to help veterans during a potentially precarious time. Beyond those organizations whose explicit mission it is to serve military veterans and service members, civilians ought to support veterans and help close the civil-military divide, at least in part by learning more about our military and, in turn, helping to carry the burdens of war.

In a country with an all-volunteer force that represents a tiny fraction of the overall population, it's all too easy to be superficially appreciative while totally ignorant of the military. As Tami Davis Biddle, a professor of national security at the U.S. Army War College, notes: "We ask a very small number of our citizens to carry the full moral burden of the use of state-sanctioned violence to accomplish political aims. Indeed, most Americans have so completely separated themselves from this responsibility that they no longer realize they own it."

It's the duty of an informed citizen, I'd argue, to understand how, where, and why the country is using force overseas. More broadly, developing even a basic knowledge of how the military works and what it does is an important part of renewing a civic community that, in an era of hyper-partisanship and discord, can counteract the identity crisis beleaguering both veterans and non-veterans alike.

The heartbreaking shooting at Pathway Home is an extreme case of a veteran struggling to overcome the difficulties inherent to transitioning out of the military. But, hopefully, this tragedy can inspire the rest of us to support those individuals who have served on our behalf.

This story originally appeared in New America's digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.