For two weeks now, I’ve been trying to write a post for Veterans Day and I keep coming up short. What I want is to convey something that honors the experience of those who have served. But honestly, I don’t know how to do that. And as a civilian, I’m not sure I can.
Here’s what I do know:
Vets are heroes. Maybe not always the kind of heroes we celebrate for “vanquishing a common foe”—but every vet goes through an experience the rest of us can only imagine. We like to compare situations to being in the military but truly nothing is like the experience than the experience itself. Every single person who has gone off to bootcamp, shaved their head, cut their hair, endured yelling at them every.single.day for at least eight weeks, pushed their body way beyond limits they ever imagined, subdued their singular thinking, and allowed themselves to become part of something bigger: a unit, a squadron, a troop, even an anonymous troop of one—this is a hero. At the very least, this is the beginning of one.
Then there are the years of service. Far away from family and friends, eating, sleeping, socializing, and serving with others you may not even like, others you cannot choose, others whose lives you must defend and hope to God will have your back too – that is an experience completely unlike any other. Only those who have served can understand it.
All cultures since the beginning of time have relied on initiation rituals primarily to mark the transition from child to adult. A true initiation requires three things: a departure from what is safe and familiar, overcoming tests and trials of physical and mental feats, and returning home changed.
These are the same basic components of a hero journey, as identified by Joseph Campbell. And this is the same experience of anyone who has served in the armed forces. Bootcamp is an initiation and the beginning. The years of service and the return home to civilian life is a hero journey. Integrating back into society, among those who have not served and cannot even imagine what you’ve been through, can sometimes be a hero journey unto itself.
For the last twenty-five years, the number of active military personnel has remained pretty consistently around 1.4 million. As of 2018, there were 18 million veterans, equal to approximately 7% of the adult US population.[i]
Between 40,000 and 60,000 vets are homeless on any given night – sleeping on the streets and in shelters. These vets account for 11% of all homeless adults in the U.S. and are younger than the general homeless population. 51% of homeless vets have disabilities and 50% have serious mental illness, much of which stems from their service. In part due to increasing housing costs and lack of affordable housing across the nation, an estimated 1.4 million veterans are at risk of being homeless. [ii]
One-quarter of all veterans have a service-connected disability. Of post-9/11 and Gulf War veterans, however, one-third have a service-connected disability and 16% have a disability rating of 70% or greater (more than any other group of vets).[iii]
In any given year, up to 20% of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[iv]
Vets Returning Home, a nonprofit in Michigan that receives no government funding, recognizes 4,000 vets in crisis living in Michigan, with 45% of them suffering PTSD. As a volunteer-operated facility, they serve 250 vets a year. Veterans Coming Home Center in Springfield, Missouri, serves between 150 and 250 people a day, providing shelter, meals, showers, lockers, computers, a library, and more. All over our country, there are nonprofits serving our veterans but most lump them in with civilians who may have similar needs but not similar experiences.
Have you ever seen the film The Best Years of Our Lives that follows the lives of three vets returning home from WWII? In 1946 it won 7 Academy Awards, including best picture. I’ve seen this film about four times since I was a kid. To this day, I still don’t understand the title.
What makes this film so extraordinary is that it does not glorify war or service. It doesn’t romanticize the reality of returning home.
The three vets in the film are a twenty-something-year-old pilot, a very young sailor, and a middle-aged infantryman. The sailor lost both hands in a freak accident and now has mechanical hooks that assist him in doing most things — but putting on his clothes and opening doors are two essential things he can’t do for himself. The infantryman who reached the rank of sergeant has been married for 20 years and was a banker before the war. When he returns, his kids are grown up. Just before reaching home, he says, “The thing that scares me most is that everybody is gonna try to rehabilitate me.” And the pilot married a woman who really only liked him in his uniform. When he can’t get a decent job after his return, he goes back to his old job working as a soda jerk at the drug store, and his wife cheats on him.
Ok, sure, the film romanticizes their situations a bit. The sailor’s childhood sweetheart accepts him as he is, the sergeant’s former boss takes him back and his kids are well-adjusted, and the pilot eventually finds a girl who loves him even as a blue-collar guy. But in 1946, Americans were still united in believing war was just and necessary. Veterans were heroes. To show even a sliver of their reality trying to acclimate back into civilian life was groundbreaking.
Thirty years later the film Coming Home also won several academy awards, including best picture. This gaze is unflinching as it follows the lives of two Vietnam Vets: one who lost use of his legs and the other, a marine captain, who is so traumatized by his experience that he eventually takes his life. This story is stark and powerful. And this story is the true experience of so many vets.
One scene that strikes me is when the marine, newly home, confronts the paraplegic vet who has slept with his wife. The marine says, “I don’t belong here. … I know what happened. I just got to figure out for myself what happened and how I’m going to deal with it.” On the surface, he’s talking about his marriage. But quickly we realize he’s talking about the war – and the reality of coming home after war.
Earlier this year, the VA announced it is granting $400 million to help homeless vets and their families find rapid re-housing and prevent many from becoming homeless in the future.[v]
Just to be clear – cuz honestly, I had to do the math on this several times – that equals $22.22 per veteran. Okay, so let’s say only 1,460,000 veterans need this help – only those that are currently homeless or at risk of being homeless. That is still only about $274 per vet. Not funds that go directly to them but to services that will help them with housing. Which means our government is budgeting maybe fifteen hours of someone’s paid time to help a vet? Someone who put their life on the line to protect the rest of us safe in our homes and now doesn’t have a home of their own – that sacrifice is apparently worth just $274 of government assistance.
In the Build Back Better Act that was just passed by the House of Representatives on Friday, the VA is allocated $5 billion dollars, a 72% reduction from the $18 billion originally proposed by the White House. Out of this, $2.3 billion is to update current facilities; $1.8 billion is to lease more medical buildings, and only $268 million is to hire more medical staff. And by more medical staff, I mean 500 residents. Residents are essentially doctors-in-training with terms of two to three years. And that’s 500 new resident positions over the next 7 years. Why residents? Because VA doctors earn substantially less than other physicians, which makes it harder to keep physicians, but there are always plenty of residents that need the experience and will work for less.
Let’s do the math again: The new infrastructure bill that our elected officials have been haggling over for months—and which still needs to be approved in the Senate—will allocate less than $15 per veteran for medical staff. Meanwhile, $4.1 billion –equaling 82% of allocated funds—will go to buildings. BUILDINGS NOT PEOPLE.
Meanwhile, upgrading the VA’s medical records system is a $16 billion project that is filled with problems and generally not going well. And perhaps you remember that the VA has been plagued with problems for many years. Horror stories of long wait times (months and years for vets to receive services) and being denied treatment and benefits were headlines just a few years ago. Now, after six years on the Government Accountability High-Risk List, the VA has still not fixed its problems or even made significant progress.
One day a year we honor our living vets and most of us don’t even think about it. Some working folks get the day off but most don’t. The vast majority of Americans don’t even know why we celebrate Veterans Day on November 11.[vi] Instead, the day we honor the deceased ones is far more popular, and not just, I think, because it allows us a long weekend.
We like our heroes to be dead. Dead heroes are much better stories. The sacrifice is clean and noble – the stuff legends and myths are made of. But the hero that continues to face trials and strife? The hero with a life-long disability? The hero that struggles daily to acclimate into civilian life, to pay their bills, or is homeless? None of that is romantic. All of that is uncomfortable. All of it forces us to look at ourselves, our nation, our policies, our prejudices. We prefer stories over reality.
We, as a country, need to do a LOT better at honoring our living vets. We need to stop our obsession with comic-book heroes and move past the momentary feel-good stories of one-time acts of courage that populate our news and social media. Real heroes are living amongst us every single day. When they entered military service, they prioritized our needs above their own for years. It’s high time we prioritize theirs.
Please, this Thanksgiving, call your senators and ask them to approve the Build Back Better Act. It’s too late to get more money for our veterans but let’s at least stop the political grandstanding that minimizes their needs.
My great uncle, Harry Peppler, served as an Army Corporal during WWII. Above is the Thanksgiving menu from just before Pearl Harbor.
[vi] November 11, 1918 is the day a formal peace agreement was signed, ending WWI. WWI was supposed to be the war that ended all wars. What we now call Veterans Day was formerly known as Armistice Day.