During the First World War, military psychiatrists noted that “shell shocked” soldiers treated near the frontlines with the support of their comrades had a high likelihood of recovery and mental health improvements. In contrast, the soldiers who were evacuated away from their units to be placed in hospitals often developed chronic symptoms and were eventually discharged from the military. Psychiatrists eventually determined that a sense of belonging to a group or society contributed to a higher level of psychological well-being.
Regrettably, today’s veterans rejoin a civilian society that is largely disconnected from the current Global War on Terror. Fewer Americans have direct, family, or social ties to the military than during previous conflicts. There are no longer war bond drives, and American workers do not rush to factories to create munitions or tanks for the war effort. The weak ties between veterans and civilians have potentially negative consequences to our society.
The average American perception of veterans as “damaged heroes” compounds the implications of the disconnection between civilians and the warrior class. Veterans are often portrayed as objects in need of charity and pity rather than as potential leaders, co-workers, peers, and friends. Current depictions of veterans are troublesome and these negative stereotypes can affect how veterans reintegrate into society.
In order to facilitate a smoother transition, we need to connect our veteran and nonveteran populations. Many who serve in AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, and other nonmilitary national service programs often possess similar values as veterans. That responsibility to community and selfless service to our nation should be instilled in all Americans. Restoring civic engagement would help to create a more cohesive society in which everyone shares the commonality of service. If these values and experiences were shared more widely across the population, it could ease the psychological injuries of war as veterans transition back into civilian life and inspire a nation to serve.
Many post-9/11 veterans are discovering the psychological, emotional and social benefits from serving in their local communities, across their nation, and all over the globe. Post-9/11 veterans have stood out in the veteran community for their desire to continue to serve and give back once they return home. Organizations like Team Rubicon and The Mission Continues are challenging veterans to serve in disaster responses, community service projects and with youth programs. Research on The Mission Continues participants showed dramatic increases in self-worth, strengthened relationships, and enriched family life by participating in volunteer service.
I experienced the benefits of continued service firsthand. Returning home from Afghanistan, I was lost, irritated and unsure of where life was going to take me. Angry and numb at the loss of my brothers, I hoped the war would in time become like everything else in my life: distant. Desperate to get my life on track, I took advantage of the GI Bill and applied to the University of Vermont, but it was a rough start to say the least. I struggled with adjustment issues, couldn’t sleep and barely maintained a 2.0 average.
On a whim, I started an internship with YouthBuild and spent the year mentoring at-risk youth on construction sites, in the classroom and on volunteer service projects. I got to learn new skills and saw the positive impacts of my relationships with the students. Having the opportunity to share my knowledge with them allowed me to grow and reestablished my self-efficacy. I started sleeping through the night, my stress disappeared and I brought my GPA up to a 3.5.
I realized that my responsibility to serve didn’t go away when I left the Army and after graduation I applied to the Peace Corps. I have recently returned from 27 months in Swaziland where I worked in various capacities while mentoring young men. It took a few years, but I finally feel whole again, and service was a critical piece of my transition home.
In 2015, the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote a letter addressed to all of those who have served in the military since September 11, 2001. In their letter, the Joint Chiefs challenged veterans to begin serving in their communities as soon as they take their uniforms off.
“As a veteran, your country still needs your experience, intellect, and character. Even out of uniform, you still have a role in providing for the security and sustained health of our democracy. No matter what you choose to do in your next chapter, you will continue to make a difference. The opportunity for leadership is yours.
We trust that you will accept this challenge and join ranks with the business leaders, volunteers, and public servants in your communities. You have made your mark in uniform and represent the strength of our Nation. We know you will do the same as veterans, setting the example for the next generation of veterans to follow.”
The Joint Chiefs astutely recognized that service should not end after taking off the uniform but that there are more ways to serve in a civilian context. Our nation should follow the Joint Chiefs' guidance and encourage not only our veterans to continue their service, but for all Americans to strive to be leaders in civic duty by committing to a year of national service to a country that stands to benefit by letting us serve.
Ryan Britch spent 6 years as an Infantryman in the Vermont Army National Guard and was deployed to Paktia, Afghanistan in 2010. As a student at the University of Vermont he volunteered with YouthBuild USA. After graduation he spent 27 months in Swaziland as a Peace Corps Volunteer. He currently resides in Washington D.C.