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Many civilians have only a vague notion of what it’s like to have served in the military.
As of Jan. 31, there were close to 1.4 million people serving in the U.S. armed forces, according to the Department of Defense’s Defense Manpower Data Center, which translates to 0.4% of the American population actively serving in the military.
If you include former members of the armed services, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that as of 2014, there are about 22 million military veterans in the U.S. Adding veterans to the active personnel numbers mentioned above results in 7.3% of all living Americans having served in the military at some point in their lives.
That leaves almost 93% who may not understand the veteran experience.
The Rivard Report asked veterans from different services, both active duty and retired, the same question: What do you wish civilians understood about what it’s like to be a veteran?
The answers spanned from why it’s difficult to return home after military service to how many may not understand what motivates people to serve in the military or the sacrifice required by military families.
Semper Fidelis (‘Always Faithful’): Honor, Duty, and Service
The core values of military service – honor, duty, service – stand out when you talk to veterans. Over the 20-plus years I worked with different military services as a former defense research analyst, I always found these at the foundation of what motivated people to choose military service.
“Dedication and service to something greater than yourself,” retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Terry Kelley said. “I just don’t see an understanding of this within the civilian population.”
Kelley spent 30 years in the Marine Corps and was deployed to multiple theaters of operations over his career, including the Vietnam War.
As we discussed his experiences in combat, Kelley described how being under fire takes adjustment, one many veterans must make.
“When I was deployed I told myself I’m not going to worry about going home alive, because if I did I couldn’t do my job,” he said. “I focused on getting my job done and left my fate in the hands of God. What I can only control is me and how I can live with myself afterward because I did my duty.”
Retired U.S. Army LTC Tom Arielly also explained how this process of adjusting to being deployed is a necessary transition for those serving.
“People go through phases of worrying about risks and about staying alive,” Arielly said. “Then, over time, they adjust and focus on the job, becoming a bit fatalistic in the process. You can’t do your job and be effective if you stay in the worry phase.”
Adjusting to combat conditions or deployed life in peacetime is an experience veterans understand all too well. Returning to civilian life and readjusting to the new normal can be challenging when few understand what veterans experienced during their service.
Returning From Military Deployments: Integration Can Be Difficult
Frederick Gardner’s Path to a Home from Rivard Report on Vimeo.
The Department of Defense provides military service members a structured community that goes beyond the work day. From health care to recreational activities, to daily rituals and shared values embedded in tasks large and small, the way of life for a veteran stems from the culture, training, and common experiences of belonging to the larger military community.
To go from belonging to a community that fully understands and identifies with you to returning to a life where most people are unaware of all that comprises military life can make for a difficult transition for many veterans.
“What we’ve done and what we’ve gone through, there is nothing in civilian life that can compare to our experience,” retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Hatem said. “You end up having fun in combat, I know that sounds crazy. That’s the easy part, being over there, depending on your battlefield buddies.”
A military spouse recalled how she finally understood what this military kinship meant for her husband Terry, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps.
“When Terry came home from Vietnam, we drove to California to go visit (Marine Corps base) Camp Pendleton, and before he walked into the building, I heard the sound of thunder,” Cynthia “CeeCee” Kelley said. She was married to Terry Kelley throughout his 30 years of service in the Marine Corps.
“I heard people calling Terry’s name – all these men were from his platoon from Vietnam, and they all came rushing up to him,” she explained. “These people were his brothers, and you could tell from the way they greeted Terry that they had all depended on each other. That moment took my breath away. I never understood this sense of brotherhood until I experienced this.”
San Antonio-based Project Phoenix SA is one local nonprofit helping civilians understand the veteran experience.
“We’re bringing civilian patriots and veterans together with the activities our organization Project Phoenix organizes,” founder and veteran Roy Orozco said. “The transition from military to civilian life helps both demographics.
“It helps veterans with civilians showing support and how they care about them. …Our monthly walks (which highlight the veteran suicide issue) and community service projects help civilians get to know veterans and that they’re not all crazy or suffering from PTSD.”
Commonly shared interests among veterans and civilians may help bridge the gap in understanding the vastness of the military experience.
“With our community service projects, monthly walks, and team runs, civilians and veterans get to see each other as people,” Project Phoenix SA organizer and retired U.S. Air Force veteran John Jones said. “Vets may speak a different vernacular and have different experiences (than most civilians). There’s a stigma associated with veteran suicide and PTSD, but after spending time together civilians get to realize they share a common interest – say, liking the Spurs.
“While diversity is great, what I care about is unification, about championing our similarities, whether it’s the Spurs, tacos, or love for our country.”
When a Service Member Serves, an Entire Family Serves
A common theme that resounded was the sense of commitment an entire family must put forward in order to support the family member serving in the military.
“It is not just the individual service member, it’s the entire extended family,” Terry Kelley said. “It’s not just the spouse and children, but parents, siblings, the entire family can be affected.”
His wife, CeeCee, agreed wholeheartedly.
“People may say, ‘Well, the military takes good care of you.’ Does that make up for lost friends, a missing parent, missed birthdays and holidays, the time not spent together, or the ultimate sacrifice, a spouse and parent who dies in the line of duty? No, it does not,” she said.
“It’s a commitment to a way of life, where someone else calls the shots on your life, so you’re always ready to serve at the discretion of your country. As military families we create our own roots and create new families with the people we serve alongside.”
“Being able to depend on your spouse to carry on with everything so you can focus on your job,” Jones said, “it’s an unusual aspect of this type of career.”
A military spouse myself, I can tell you it’s all about on the job training. As a brand new Navy wife, I found myself in a foreign country where I was rapidly trying to learn Italian, with no family for thousands of miles. The moment our honeymoon was over, my husband’s ship sailed and I was left alone to figure out how to navigate life in the small town of Gaeta, Italy.
Navy wives came to my rescue by explaining how to pay utility bills, where to get basic services, even the military vernacular that was so foreign to me.
For the first few months of marriage, my then-husband complained about his boss nightly. He would always say, “That Cheng did this today,” or “I’m so fed up with the Cheng!”
To my surprise, when he pointed out his boss in a crowd one day, his supervisor was not Asian. He was the chief engineer on board the ship, the CHENG.
That was just the beginning of my education as a military spouse.
“Watching service families try and deal with active duty members, there’s just no way to prepare for that,” Hatem added. “There’s no training, you just learn it all as you go along.”
“Our families don’t understand what we as Marine Corps wives go through,” CeeCee stressed. “Only our Marine Corps family does.”
While the support within the military community builds esprit de corps, it also can contribute to the isolation many veterans experience. Many civilians have little understanding of what it means to serve – and that goes for the entire family, not just the veteran.
Mixed Feelings: ‘Thank you for Your Service’
“Thank you for your service.”
A friend asked me recently if she should thank veterans for their service. That was the question that prompted me to explore what veterans wished civilians understood about military service.
The answers to that question were mixed.
“I’ve never been comfortable with the ‘Thank you for your service,’” Hatem said. “I’ve lost a buddy in combat. I didn’t have to, but I took his personal effects to his mother and she thanked me.
“So his mom got a flag at her son’s service and (if I show my military I.D. card) I get a free meal? How does that compensate for that kid’s life?” he added. “Civilians are doing the best they can with their gestures and thanks, and you know they’re doing the best they can in thanking you, but it’s uncomfortable.”
“I don’t like the phrase, ‘I thank you for your service,’” CeeCee said. “It’s become a hollow compliment, as if they (civilians) have done their part by giving thanks. The veteran’s entire family has to sacrifice in order for this service to happen.”
“In World War II, the civilian population made sacrifices, rationed goods, and grew victory gardens,” Jones said. “But after 9/11, we were extorted to go on living as we did before to show the terrorists that they didn’t win.
“I think that has contributed to a widening of the gap in the understanding of sacrifice and service between civilians and veterans who do understand, and it’s what has changed since 9/11.”
Before thanking a veteran for his or her service, keep in mind every veteran’s reaction to that sentiment is going to be different and may reflect deep feelings based on each one’s service experience.
In the grand scheme of things, worrying about whether to thank a veteran should not stop you from doing so. Veterans have faced situations most civilians cannot begin to imagine or comprehend.
U.S. Navy veteran Tina Casanova explained her perspective to the Rivard Report, one that had many veterans nodding in agreement as she spoke surrounded by other Project Phoenix SA vets.
Casanova said she noticed how she doesn’t sweat the small stuff anymore. Her awareness of what she has gained from her military service and the larger issues we as a nation face make the daily annoyances minor by comparison.
“I make a conscious choice to let people merge in front of me when I’m driving,” she explained. “As long as we all get to our destination, I say let’s all consider each other.”
Casanova provided a definition of “veteran” that everyone can understand and appreciate.
“I would like civilians to consider that when we come back we’re not going to be civilians again, but we’re no longer active duty,” Casanova said. “’Veteran’ is a perfect term to show that we’re different.
“What exactly is a veteran? Someone transformed by service.”