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Paula Joan Caplan's Authors Guild Blog

The Naked Emperor and the Vanishing Veteran

Whispers -- from the red carpet to charitable foundations to the corporate boardroom -- tell a very different story than do prominent speakers and private citizens who declare, "We support veterans! We hire veterans! We love veterans...and their families!"

In the belly of the Pentagon in December, 2011, I first met Army Colonel David Sutherland, who had led a brigade during the surge in Iraq and straightforwardly told a Washington Post reporter that when more than 100 of his soldiers were killed, "I didn't like it." Knowing I had just written a book about veterans and organized a Harvard Kennedy School conference about veterans and their families, the Colonel asked if I had read the two Pentagon white papers called "The Sea of Goodwill" and "The Groundswell of Support." I had. He asked what I thought of them. Unaware that he had written them, I said with no preliminaries that I thought they were good as far as they went, that I agreed that all veterans deserve an education, employment, and health care. "However," I continued, "you can educate veterans and give them jobs and health care, but if they are isolated from their home communities, many will abuse alcohol and drugs, become homeless, and kill themselves."

I then said that I thought that the notion that there are a sea of goodwill and groundswell of support for veterans from nonveterans was lovely but largely untrue. In researching for my book, I had found few nonveterans who even wanted to think about veterans. After all, who wants to think about war? What's more, these days, veterans comprise less than 7% of the United States population, so when the small numbers combine with the social isolation of so many, the vast majority of citizens may not even know someone who served. If you don't interact -- or knowingly interact -- much with veterans, you simply don't have to think about them. I hoped against hope that I would be proven wrong about this.

Starting in the spring of 2011, I had begun blogging for Psychology Today, and in the next few years, I learned that nearly every time I wrote anything about veterans, between 30% and less than 1% as many people read those essays as read anything else I ever wrote about there. I was devastated to see the lack of support so starkly displayed in those numbers. I tried an experiment: The next time I wrote an essay about veterans, instead of telegraphing that in the headline, I called it "Healing Without Harming," and within three days it had garnered as many readers as my average essay that was unrelated to veterans.

After working with veterans and their families for more than a dozen years, I have had lengthy conversations with many people who deeply care about veterans and genuinely help through various organizations and services. At first, all of us were optimistic that once we made clear that many veterans and their families suffer because of the former's military experiences, that they suffer more when their deeply human responses are wrongly labeled signs of mental illness and this leads their communities to fear and turn away from them, and that there are many alternative approaches that help them truly come home, America would rise to the occasion and help. But through these years, I hear increasingly hear from these people that their optimism has gone. The Groundswell of Support is an emperor with no clothes.

Whispers from people on awards show red carpets go like this: "In the past couple of years, fewer celebrities even mention servicemembers, and with rare exceptions, the messages from those who do are far briefer than before." Why? Many celebrities believe that because the most recent wars are said to be over, veterans no longer need our attention. They have become invisible.

Help for veterans no longer appears on the lists of many charitable foundations that a few years ago listed it as a top priority for funding. A highly-placed expert on the military reports that CEOs that had formerly proudly trumpeted their intentions to employ veterans through such programs as Joining Forces that is supported by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden now tell him there is no need to help them, because "the wars are over."

These attitudes reflect a staggering ignorance of history. In an important sense, wars rarely completely end. The production of new veterans certainly never stops. Not only do thousands of servicemembers continue to serve in regions where we were recently explicitly at war, but also, 70 years after World War II ended, we have nearly 50,000 military personnel stationed in Germany, more than that in Japan, and 28,500 service members in Korea, all these decades after those wars ended. And now President Obama announces that he will send "50 Special Forces" troops to Syria, but history shows that what starts with a tiny number quickly swells. There will be more deaths, more horrific physical injuries, more emotional devastation.

The suicide rate among veterans is highest among the oldest, those from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Consider that fact in light of how long they have been home, and the low tide of the Sea of Goodwill should scare us to death. The fact that their wars officially ended decades ago has not wiped out their need for connection and other kinds of help. Related to this, another frightening fact has only recently begun to be whispered about: It is that the well-known claim that "22 veterans kill themselves every day" is a vast underestimate. That figure is based on reports from only 21 states, not including California and Texas with their high numbers of veterans. In spite of this, respected organizations and individuals continue to bruit about the figure of 22, when a very conservative estimate would place it at least at 50.

Suicide rates are also especially high among women veterans, and likely this is at least partly connected to the high likelihood of being sexually assaulted in the military if you are a woman. Many women and men who were sexually victimized have courageously told their stories in Congressional hearings, only to plunge into despair as year after year, no legislation has been passed that has significantly reduced the incidence of such assaults or increased the numbers of meaningful punishments for the perpetrators. They feel invisible.

Another ugly realm that has been too little revealed -- and largely unpunished -- has been the number of entities purported to help veterans who are in it too much in order, as what one called in an email sent to (but not intended for) me, to "get those veteran dollars." As I travel around the U.S., the organization I hear touted the most by ordinary citizens when asked who is helping veterans is Wounded Warrior Project, which is certainly the most highly publicized. The Wounded Warriors CEO and employees receive alarmingly high percentages of the WW budget -- the CEO's salary going well over $300,000 -- and the project ended up with more than $90 million in assets at the end of 2012, during which time they spent $300,000 for a parade and $50,000 for a monument, all of which could instead have gone to provide substantive help for veterans and their families. Their website includes the claim that they supported 398 veterans and their caregivers and placed 320 wounded veterans in jobs, not impressive figures for a charity that in 2013 took in close to $235 in revenue and in 2014, more than $340 million. (http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.summary&orgid=12842#.VjbnnbTP6kQ) And despite refusing to provide any help to veterans who served before 9/11, Trace Adkins in one of their Public Service Announcements (read: commercial) sings a verse about a man who served in Vietnam. Vietnam veterans who were turned away from Wounded Warriors have told me they were crushed by the rejection and felt invisible.

In stark contrast are sterling entities that genuinely help veterans, including but by no means limited to Col. (Ret.) Sutherland's Dixon Center in Easter Seals, Vietnam veteran Shad Meshad's National Veterans Foundation, the Clowning Project for veterans that is run by Dr. Patch Adams, and Dr. Mary Vieten's Tohidu retreats. They and their staff members work tirelessly, without glitz and glamour, to give veterans and their families what they need. But the combination of the hush-hush tide that is covering up those needs threatens to become a tidal wave that conceals what we as a nation ignore at our peril.

©Copyright 2015 by Paula J. Caplan All rights reserved
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