Published in The News Tribune, January 18, 2012
As readers of this newspaper likely know, last year JBLM suffered a record number of suicides (TNT 12-30). Tragically, this increase reflects a nationwide trend; suicide rates in the Army have doubled over the last 10 years. Clearly all is not well with our armed forces. Divorce rates are climbing. And the unemployment rate among younger veterans now stands at 30 percent — twice the rate found among younger non-veterans.
In this column I’d like to draw attention to a slow shift occurring in civilian-military relations that contributes to the growing challenges faced by soldiers re-entering civilian life.
Recently the Pew Research Center published the results of its extensive surveys of veterans. It found that almost half of veterans who served over the last 10 years have had a difficult to very difficult time reintegrating into civilian life.
It’s not at all clear what accounts for soldiers’ growing readjustment problems. But I’d suggest that part of the answer might be found in that same Pew report. Despite 10 years of military conflict, over this time frame only one-half of 1 percent of adults have been in uniform; compare this with the 9 percent of adults who served during WWII. Military service among us is now at its lowest level in 70 years.
Not only do very few of us today join the military, but we know few people who have. Since the end of the draft in 1973, the nation has relied on a dwindling all-volunteer army with high rates of re-enlistment for its national security. Soldiers today are much more likely to look to the military for longer-term employment; the military today is a profession more than a tour of duty.
Changes in the size, composition, and expectations of soldiers have resulted in military personnel who are increasingly isolated from civilian life. The Pew report finds that civilians today have less meaningful and sustained contact with those in uniform. Soldiers in turn have fewer and more select ties to civilian life than was the case when short stints in the service was more broadly shared among the population.
One result has been the growing existence of military sub-cultures that are both self-contained and unfathomable to outsiders. For many civilians, those in uniform can seem like members of a strange cult best to avoid, rather than a representative group chosen to carry out our collective security needs.
This lack of civilian contact along with the more prolonged exposure to military life that is typical among soldiers can contribute to the ex-soldiers’ reintegration problems. Many have a harder time understanding and identifying with popular American culture and its norms; many too, have a tendency to feel superior to civilians and civilian culture.
Re-entry is also made even more difficult by the type of skills soldiers acquire. Often these don’t correspond with skills needed in civilian life. A disconnect between what soldiers develop during their military careers in terms of hard and soft skills, and what the private sector values makes reintegrating into civilian life more challenging.
The cultural gap between civilian and military life also contributes to employment problems. As a recent article in the New York Times states it, “employers and veterans seem to view each other as alien species.” A veteran job-seeker commented that employers fear “we’re all going to rage out.”
These differences between military and civilian experiences are larger today than ever before. The founder of the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America states that these differences amount to us “almost [living] on two different planets.”
As we draw down our forces in Iraq (and eventually Afghanistan), the challenges soldiers face of reintegrating into the mainstream will only grow. According to White House estimates, a million servicemen and women will make this transition over the next 5 years.
The military must be more candid in dealing with soldiers’ readjustment problems. Meanwhile, the other 99.5 percent of us should in turn assure that returning soldiers are welcomed back to civilian life with the ample training, health and mental health services, counseling assistance, and career advising needed to ease their reintegration back onto our planet.