It's no secret that many combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have struggled when returning to civilian life. With combat operations in Iraq over and those in Afghanistan winding down, even more American servicemen and women will be coming home to face problems ranging from high unemployment to a suicide epidemic plaguing the veteran community. Most of us can probably agree that helping vets re-enter the fold is both a moral obligation and an investment in the future of our country. But why has it been so hard?
I have the privilege of working with many of these young men and women. At the Rocky Top Therapy Center in Keller, Texas I provide equine-assisted counseling for vets as they navigate the tricky transition from war to home life. Not so long ago, I struggled with the same transition when I came home from a year in Iraq.
There are many reasons why the change can be so tough. Frequently it’s difficult finding purposeful work. A meaningful job is critical to helping a vet make the transition home, yet the jobless rate among veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq remains higher than their civilian counterparts. An Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) membership survey showed an unemployment rate of 17% at the beginning of 2012, well above the national unemployment rate of 8.1%. The latest unemployment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that the new veteran unemployment rate has improved, but remains more than a percentage point higher than the national average.
Sometimes, the problem is at home. Families strained by multiple deployments often find that the separations have created deep rifts. Issues that might have been glossed over during deployment can no longer be ignored once the vet comes home. As hard as the family tries, the damage often proves irreparable.
At times, it’s the invisible wounds of war that hold us back. No one comes home from war unchanged but the changes are not always obvious. Emotional trauma caused by war is very real and can be paralyzing if untreated. Of course, there are the other wounds that are painfully obvious to everyone, like missing limbs or the scars from IED blasts.
For many vets, the problem is more basic. They feel utterly alone.
Is it any wonder? For over ten years Americans have been content to allow less than 1% of the population carry the war fighting burden for our country. It is almost as if our country has washed its collective hands of any personal responsibility for national security. It has just been too easy to hire someone else’s sons and daughters to do the fighting. But this comes at a cost.
There is a huge cultural divide between civilians and the military that seems to grow wider with each passing year. When the war is over for a vet, he or she returns home to a country that doesn’t seem to understand. Many of their countrymen have spent the past ten years as if nothing has changed. For most, nothing really has. But for the combat veteran everything is different. Memories and thoughts of the war are never far away. Even years later, they endure. For us, the war will forever be an integral part of who we are.
These alternate realities can make a vet feel like a stranger living in a strange land. Except this is not a strange land. This is home. Maybe that is why so many vets make the agonizing decision to return to combat rather than remain in a place where they just don’t seem to fit.
When I came home from a year-long combat deployment to Iraq, I experienced many of the same issues faced by other vets. I was laid off from my civilian job. My 10-year marriage ended and I became a fulltime single parent. I struggled with bouts of depression and rage. In many ways, I felt like I was broken. But mostly, I just felt alone.
In Iraq I was surrounded by men and women who I loved, respected, and trusted completely. I never doubted for a second that each one of them had my back. And they knew I had theirs. Bonds forged on the battlefield run deep.
As insane as it sounds now, I felt safe in Iraq. I felt safe because I was with my comrades-in-arms my brothers and sisters. As long as we were together, I would have felt safe marching right through the gates of hell. I haven’t felt the same way since.
When my tour was up, it took less than 72 hours to go from being a warrior to being a civilian again.
In many ways I was incredibly lucky. I came back from Iraq alive and in one piece. My three kids refused to let my emotional distance stand in the way of our building a new life together. My mom and dad provided continuous love and support as I struggled to find my way back. I had a circle of friends who cared deeply about my kids and me and offered invaluable emotional support. All of these things made it much easier to put the war behind me and move forward. But as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that no one really understood what I was going through.
I can’t remember exactly when I first saw a public service announcement from IAVA called Alone. But I do remember how I felt when I saw it. My eyes grew teary, my throat tightened, and I said to myself, “These guys get it.” That minute and a half changed everything for me.
Since that day, I have become much more involved with IAVA as well as a number of other veterans groups in my hometown. Having these connections with other vets has made all the difference for me. I feel part of a brotherhood again. With so few of us out there, that bond is critical.
Thanks to the work of IAVA and others who care deeply about veteran’s issues, the New GI Bill was implemented, giving me the chance to go back to school. I’ll graduate this year with a Master’s in mental health counseling and continue the work I love helping other vets find their way home. Toward this end, I’ll do my best to connect these vets with other vets. I am convinced this is the most important piece of coming home.
I believe that most of us will eventually find a place among our countrymen. I am convinced many will assume positions of leadership and help define our country’s character going forward. But the process will not always be easy. I think the tragic spike in the veteran suicide rate this year up 18% from the same period in 2011 attests to this fact.
I hope that, as our involvement in Afghanistan comes to a close, Americans continue to recognize the importance of supporting our transition home. I hope my countrymen understand the need to help us write productive new chapters as we move forward with civilian lives. But I also hope Americans go a step further and truly take a personal interest in this war. Connecting returning vets with other vets is a band-aid designed to help our warriors find kinship and support from the few who truly understand them.
How might their reintegration and our country be different if everyone had that same understanding?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeff Hensley spent 21 years as a fighter pilot in the United States Navy. He completed two combat deployments to Iraq before deciding to pursue his Master’s in mental health counseling from the University of North Texas. Mr. Hensley will graduate this year and plans to work with other veterans. He also serves as a spokesman for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).