A Civilian’s Challenge to Veteran and Active Duty Military
Sitting around the banquet table in 2012, a veteran told me the story of his son-in-law. It seems he had a bit of trouble adjusting to civilian life. A call from his daughter described a frustrated man who had become distant and withdrawn. It was not the man she married. “Dad, would you talk to him.” Over a beer, her father shared stories and his experiences during his military life. Until this discussion many had been held secret for many years. They shared tales of combat, chow, and what it was like to miss home. Although 20 years separated their time served, the stories were close to identical. As the evening wore on, they both felt better. It wasn’t the beer. It was the opportunity to talk to someone that understood.
My veteran friend shared his son-in-law’s struggle and contended it was not in only dealing with his experiences while in the military, but the compounded loss of the military community he had long been a part of for over 10 years. Enlisted men and women are trained from the beginning to be a part of something larger than them. To protect their own, and have their six. Their world is filled with structure, protocol and rules. Their lives are literally in each other’s hands. They have a mission, a purpose and a goal. When they come home, the memories are still there but the community is gone. This combined with re-acclimating to civilian life can lead to some pretty serious issues.
Veteran and Warfighter Boone Cutler said it best. “The first couple of years after discharge are critical. You assimilate, isolate or die.” His intimate knowledge of veteran suicide led him to write the Spartan Pledge, which is a call to veterans to reach out to their battle buddies before taking their own life. His statements were a wakeup call to me. Why are veterans dying after they return home? How many are we losing? What can we do to reduce the number of casualties?
According to the most current Veterans Administration report on Veteran Suicide, published in August of 2016, the current veteran suicide rate is over 7,000 per year. Of the statistics cited, 65 percent are veterans 50 years and older. It is often perceived that suicide most often impacts the young. Research demonstrates, that Veterans connected with VA services were less likely to become suicide casualties. In comparison of data, which analyzes a 2001 report to current statistics, the rate of increased suicides was 8.8 percent for veterans using VA services as compared to 38.6 percent for those who did not. It can be argued that the lower suicide group was a result of receiving the care they needed. I would argue it is more than that. It is also about connection. Veterans going to the VA make connections because they are among their own.
For the past three years I have had the opportunity to speak with veterans about the healing power of connection in the form of military reunions. The Military Reunion Network holds classes across the country on planning military reunions. Lunchtime topics circle around to why they get together in the first place. The responses while worded differently, were always the same. “They get me, they understand what each of us as individuals and as a group have experienced. They get what I have been through, what my wife and kids have been through.”
Third Marine Division Association reunion planner, Ron Deverick, said, “There is a bit of smack talk between branches, but at the end of the day we all have each other’s back regardless of the patch on our sleeve as we have all been there. We all understand.”
My interviews included veterans who had contemplated or attempted suicide as well those struggling with PTS. There appears to be a link between suicide rate and veterans staying well-connected following military separation.
The experience of serving our country brings up honor, patriotism, pride and duty. It also brings up Traumatic Brain Injury, Disability, Post Traumatic Stress, and Survivor Guilt. Over the course of round table discussions, Veterans have alluded to one or more of these characteristics in some form or another. They shared the challenges of their service or transitioning back to civilian life. Some discussed PTS triggers that would set them back.
“The sound of a ringing phone is still tough for me,” said veteran Dr. Art Schmitt, in a recent interview. Among other duties, Dr. Schmitt flew rescue helicopters in Vietnam. A phone call set each mission in motion. He details many of his missions in his book, “A War with No Name.” It is one Soldier’s story about dealing with and surviving PTSD.
Veteran Cleo DeLoner attempted suicide multiple times before finding the right treatment and support. She served in Somalia during Operation Restore Hope. Cleo’s first suicide attempt was a gunshot to the face. She too struggles with PTSD. She now travels the country speaking out about veteran suicide and PTSD awareness.
When interviewed, Boone Cutler, Cleo DeLoner and Dr. Schmitt all agreed, “staying connected has a positive impact.” In DeLoner’s case, she felt isolated physically and emotionally. The “suck it up” military attitude limited her ability to reach out to family and friends in her community. When she separated from the military she lost touch with her battle buddies. “Staying connected could have made a difference as they all lived through what I did,” DeLoner said.
Social media has allowed veterans to stay in touch in greater numbers than ever before, as it is a way to share what is going on real time. Private Facebook groups provide an outlet for communication and support groups struggling with situations like PTSD, VA benefits issues or employment. A veteran’s post about a recent PTSD trigger generated over 100 comments from other veterans that had experienced a similar situation. Social Media can be tricky though because it does not completely satisfy one’s need for human connection. Only face-to-face interaction can do that.
When veterans get together for a few days every year something happens. They share stories, which according to their spouses, get more exaggerated as the years go by. They laugh. They remember. They forget. They pause for those gone. They break bread. They create new memories together. Most importantly, and perhaps without knowing it, they heal because they are among those that “get them.” It is the same for their spouses. Quiet conversations of struggles after a recent VA visit or upcoming event may take place. These conversations are next to impossible on social media because they happen organically beginning in the buffet line or at a banquet table in the hospitality space.
Having witnessed the power of veteran connection face-to-face over the last six years prompted my efforts to confirm that staying connected and getting together face-to-face is an integral part of keeping our veteran community off the path to veteran suicide. While it seems basic and simple, it is critical. Therefore, I am challenging our veteran community to get together on a regular basis. Put down the crutch of social media and meet in person for a few days each year. Encourage your peers and others to attend. It may be just the thing to change their life.
How does one find out about the reunions that are out there? How does each group promote theirs? How does one plan an event? The Military Reunion Network (MRN) is a great place to start. Established in 1991, the goal of MRN is to support veterans planning military reunions through education, connections and resources. Military reunion groups can post their events on the MRN website and in every issue of MRN magazine at no cost. Are you curious about places to have a military reunion? Destinations on the MRN website are military reunion friendly. There are cities that are not equipped to support reunions for a wide variety of reasons. Why not start with a destination that understands the needs of these unique events?
The Military Reunion Network can help you get started if you are curious about planning your own reunion. “Basic Training” classes are held across the country that walk you through the organization and implementation process from beginning to end. It begins with defining what your reunion is all about. It is critical to understand your group before the planning process begins. MRN teaches veterans how to reduce costs, find grants, understand contracts, as well as work with destinations, hotels, attractions and transportation companies. The Military Reunion Network also provides resources for event insurance, attorneys that will review contracts, reunion logo items and even links to find battle buddies and shipmates.
Veteran suicide rates are too high. Connections help alleviate this chronic problem. The Military Reunion Network eliminates the obstacles that stand in your way. Staying connected is an integral part of keeping the veteran community healthy and stable. The MRN mission is simple, “get connected, stay connected.”