Incoming: What Is It Like to Take Off the Uniform?

April 1, 2016
By Lt. Gen. Mike Basla, USAF (Ret.)

I recently had the honor of speaking with the men and women of the National Capital Region’s Warrior Transition Brigade at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The question they asked most often was, “What’s it like to take off the uniform?” I thought about that question and realized that for many of these service members, the transition would be markedly different than it was for me. Not only are some of them leaving the only profession they have ever known, but also they are leaving it with new physical and/or psychological challenges.

America’s challenge with integrating veterans back into our communities is not new. As a nation, we should be doing more to facilitate and support this transition, especially over the long term. Fortunately, some companies, particularly those in the defense industry, have taken the lead in setting a pathway to transition veterans successfully into the civilian work force through dedicated military hiring teams, mentorship programs and partnerships with veterans organizations.

However, few among the general public seem to understand what military life is really like and what it means to be a veteran trying to integrate back into society. As a nation, we must act now to change that or face the prospect of leaving behind some of our greatest citizens—the very ones we have been praising for the past decade while they fought during operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. 

During World War II, an estimated 12 percent of our population was in uniform, and the war effort consumed almost half of all U.S. economic output. The nation was fully mobilized: Everyone had skin in the game. But that is not the case today. For nearly two generations, we have had an all-volunteer force. Now, less than 1/2 of 1 percent of our population wears a military uniform. Many are the sons and daughters of veterans, further widening the gap of understanding between our citizenry and its service members.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, we have about 22 million living American veterans. About one-third of those are Vietnam veterans and another third comes from recent conflicts. It is no secret that we treated our Vietnam veterans badly, and it took too many years for Americans to recognize the injustices of the 1970s. We can thank public figures like H. Ross Perot for heightening our awareness and taking steps to acknowledge the sacrifices of these veterans.

Fortunately, we have more appreciation for the men and women who volunteered to serve in recent conflicts. From the beginning, we lauded those who responded to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Private citizens now go out of their way to express appreciation for the many sacrifices of our service members and their families. Today, an individual cannot mention the fact that he or she served without someone saying, “Thank you for your service.” These thanks are appreciated, but how long will they last, and how can we translate that appreciation into tangible steps to transition our veterans back into society? 

We can begin by understanding the many ways that conflicts since 9/11 differ from previous wars. First, many service members return to the front lines for numerous combat deployments. This means multiple extended family separations, putting greater stress on military families. Second, many of those who survive conflicts without physical injuries suffer from a different set of wounds, in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI). These injuries—often referred to as invisible wounds—can be much more difficult to spot and treat.

Recent conflicts also are different because of our heavier reliance on the National Guard and Reserve forces. The demands of these conflicts and the size of our active duty component have forced us to dip further into the Reserves than ever before. These returning veterans face different challenges. They often return home alone rather than with their unit and its built-in support structure. Many are not close to stateside installations, so they cannot easily take advantage of programs for returning warriors. Finally, reservists receive only 30 days of follow-on medical benefits once out of uniform. This does not meet health needs that might surface after benefits end. 

Another way to help veterans is through traditional means in the commercial sector. As the defense industry has found, corporate America can benefit greatly from hiring veterans. Their skill sets and the qualities that served them during their time in the military are invaluable. They are committed, dedicated and hardworking—all highly desirable attributes. 

So what does all this mean to the rest of us as individuals? First of all, it means we must recognize that we have a very small segment of our society with very different experiences and needs than most of us. Veterans often are reluctant to talk about their experiences or ask for help, but you can learn about the veterans in your area by checking out one of the many veterans service organizations.

Get connected by sitting down to speak with them. Work to understand their needs, which include homes, specialized health care, jobs and schools. Actively recruit veterans. Become a mentor and a friend. Assist them to ensure they receive the benefits our country promised as part of our contract for their service. For the combat-disabled, consider sponsoring service dogs and accommodations, special sports programs or other activities that allow them to recapture a sense of their former selves and help them understand that their lives have purpose and value. 

Protecting Americans is central to our freedom and way of life. The best way we can thank veterans for their service is to get involved and stay involved. 

Lt. Gen. Mike Basla, USAF (Ret.), the former chief of information dominance and chief information officer of the U.S. Air Force, is the senior vice president of Healthcare, Litigation and Enterprise IT for CACI.

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