Veterans need to stick together. The ethos of the military veteran requires that you don’t dump your troubles on the civilians you swore an oath to protect. If you’ve been through the heavy stuff and a civilian asks you about it, you don’t share at all, or share the minimum required. Everybody knows this. In my country, it is well known that the WWII veterans never talked about it. Maybe, maybe when grandpa was old and gray, he ended up sharing a story or two that you had never heard before, about his time in the war. This is the common thread amongst military veterans. Every military therapist I’ve ever spoken to, encourages that we share, talk it out, write it out, make the traumatic familiar and learn to cope with the memories, rather than suppress the trauma. In our American society, about 7% of the adult population are Veterans. In Ukrainian society, it is about to be 11-15%, depending on how many citizens return to Ukraine after the victory.
One of the lessons I’ve learned as a Veteran of the Armed Services is that me and my buddies who served is that when Veterans get together, there is an immediate connection. There is a mutual respect. There is an understanding, that no matter what you did in the military, whether you served in combat or you served in the kitchen, you still served. The intelligent combat Veterans always tell me that even though they were in the battle and I sat at a desk underground in Hawaii, my service is no less valid than theirs. We all are a part of the brotherhood and sisterhood of the military. So, when I pull up a chair at the VFW, or the American Legion restaurant or bar and start talking to a Veteran, we have a shared experience we can talk about, and respect for one another is the first thing you feel. We have a base of common experiences: basic training, our duty stations, the job we were trained on. We understand the headaches of military life, we understand the sacrifice that is military service. When we are together, we share, we joke, we make fun of each other, we laugh together. But at the end, the time we spend together is our version of therapy. We get to talk about it in a light-hearted way, and nobody judges each other. We support one another, because that’s what we were trained to do, look out for our battle buddy. When military Veterans are together in the same room, healing happens.
However, in society, 85-95% of the rest of the people we see every day are civilians and we lack the same common experience with them. As I stated earlier, a Veteran won’t share with a civilian like we will openly share with a civilian. That means, if in a room full of 7 people, the veteran can only talk freely to one person, that is a challenge we must develop a solution for.
This is why I point to the genius of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (or VFW) in America. They gave Veterans a place to be together. To be around people who understand the military experience. I live in a town of 2,000 people in Minnesota and in our town there is a VFW. Two miles away in a neighboring town there is an American Legion. These are basically bars and dance halls where any Veteran is welcome. There are over 18,000 locations that all look and feel the same when you walk in. I could be from out of town, visit a VFW or American Legion and the guys would welcome me with open arms.
In Ukraine, many of the soldiers who will be Veterans for the rest of their lives come from small villages. We must establish a place for these Veterans to gather. It can’t only be in Kyiv. We have to cast a vision for the American Legion and VFW 2.0 – the Veterans Legion of Ukraine. This mission, while it seems as though it is a cheerful, positive goal and vision for the Veteran community, it is really as serious as life and death.
Let me explain. Once you become a Veteran, you step onto a new battlefield. The only problem is, we weren’t trained for this fight. The new battlefield for us Veterans is the broader civilian world we must exist in, post-service. It is an internal war we are engaged in and the battle has no end date. It is unfamiliar territory, and it feels like the allies are nowhere to be found.
Let me tell you the biggest enemy that exists in the life of a Veteran: Loneliness. When you return from your service, sometimes there are greetings from civilians at the airport with flags and signs. Sometimes there are parades. Sometimes you get showered with thanks and admiration for your sacrifice.
But that doesn’t last forever. Sometimes it only lasts a day, if it happens at all.
Veterans give everything. It is the most fast paced, intense environment you’ll ever experience in your lifetime. For many of us, our time serving in the military brought out the best in us. Military life challenges you to the degree that you have to rise to the occasion or you might die. In military life, the objectives are clear, the battle plan is laid out, and the mission is what you live for.
In civilian life, the pace is slower. Even at the most exciting company or organization you might work for as a Veteran, it will never be as exciting and challenging as military service was. The comradery isn’t the same. The connection you feel to your co-workers pales in comparison to the people we wore camouflage with. Most Veterans I know, even if they didn’t like their time in the military, once they are years removed from service, most of us say that there is something about it that we miss.
And once you’re out of the military and promoted to the rank of Veteran, most people don’t or can’t go back. You’re too old. You’re unfit for service. The military becomes something you did, not something you can do any more.
And on this mission in civilian life, you don’t have a chain of command to take orders from, the orders have to come from yourself. But like I said, nobody trains us for this mission as a civilian.
Out here in the civilian world, you look around and you realize, you’re on your own, buddy. You have to figure it out for yourself.
And the minefields you must navigate now are things like a destructive thought that takes hold in your mind, like: “How can these people just be walking down Khreschatyk, minding their own business, shopping at the stores, drinking coffee, pretending like a war didn’t happen in our country. Don’t they know that I sacrificed EVERYTHING so they could have this life? Don’t they understand that without our unit and units like ours, they wouldn’t have any of this?”
You begin to feel alone. You begin to feel like nobody cares. You begin to feel sorry for yourself and isolate yourself. The feeling of loneliness creeps in and you begin to repeat in your mind that nobody cares. Nobody understands. I’m all alone and maybe it wasn’t worth it.
Maybe you turn to the bottle. Maybe you start thinking that it should have been you who died on the battlefield and not your buddy. Maybe you start to think that you’d be better off dead than have to deal with the daily struggle of trying to endure the horrible memories and this empty feeling that comes with civilian life after service. Maybe the night terrors that wake you up in a sweat are becoming too much to endure. Maybe you begin to treat your family poorly and they distance themselves from you and it isn’t the same anymore now that you’re back home. Maybe you start to ask yourself if life is worth living if even your family is having a hard time loving you.
This battlefield of the mind is tougher, longer, and more painful than physical pain. In the trenches we didn’t give up. But in this phase of life, without the support of our unit, giving up is often the decision Veterans make.
In America, one of our biggest problems is that 20+ Veterans a day give up the fight. After 9/11, our guys have ended their lives at a rate 20 times greater than those killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is my assessment, that our young Veterans do this, because they didn’t find a community of Veterans to spend their time with. Guys my age don’t go to the American Legion or VFW. That’s for old guys. The Veterans at the bar have gray hair. For the Post 9/11 American Veteran, there isn’t a place where Veterans can gather and support one another.
I don’t want this to happen in Ukraine.
How do we properly equip our Ukrainian Veterans now and in the future to ensure that we do not see the same tragedies here?
Give Veterans a place to gather. Give them a place to feel Give them a place to conduct their own self-administered therapy. Give them a community to belong to. Give them a mission. Give them opportunities to exercise, stay fit, compete, and remind themselves of the best they can be.
Without a community that comes with a built in understanding of the life of a Veteran, without a place for Veterans to gather, without a support system and a piece of familiarity from their former life, the Veteran loses the most powerful part of any military – the community.
If we, at Veterans Legion keep this crucial part of Veteran service in our minds and as a part of our goals, I believe this creates a necessary and solid foundation for all the support we plan on delivering to the estimated 3-4 million Veterans and their over 8 million family members and Ukraine can emerge as a leader in Veteran services on earth.