How to tap the considerable potential of veterans to the larger society? The armed forces, the civil community, and veterans themselves, in groups or as individuals, can contribute to this undertaking. Maximizing the contributions made by veterans can begin during military service. Without endorsing any organizations, but perhaps offering choices of veteran’s groups, the armed forces might include a conversation on continuing service as part of the transition to civil life. This conversation could involve current veterans, to include those with disabilities, who have continued to serve after being discharged. Some veteran’s organization are largely social, others political or service-oriented, or a mixture of all three. Some have largely been concerned with veteran’s rights and privileges. Others, especially recently, have served wide causes of social justice and civil rights, in effect extending the soldier’s ideal of selfless service beyond the period of enlistment. College students have formed veteran’s groups to foster community and explore solutions to the problems of the transition from the military to the academy. Other groups specialize in creative and artistic pursuits for veterans, sometimes as means of therapy. The veteran’s organizations that are active in a newly discharge veteran’s hometown or region should welcome the returning veteran, in person if possible. Of course, not all public service organizations are composed of veterans. Volunteer firefighter and rescue, service clubs, scouts, big brother/sister, to name only a few, offer opportunities for service and for the membership, affiliation, comradeship and sense of purpose many veterans find lacking in their post-military lives. Steering veterans towards lives of useful service could also serve to draw them away from affiliation with extremist groups or gangs, from rootlessness and self-destructive behavior.
Veterans themselves have the biggest role in deciding whether and how they will contribute to society. Some may find meaning in the kind of work they do, as public servants, teachers, professional activists or artists. For others, work may be just a job, and they will seek greater meaning elsewhere, as a volunteer or amateur. But perhaps the greatest choice of all for veterans is the spirit with which they pursue their post-military selves. Veterans must decide how to interpret and live with their own backgrounds of military service. In simplest form, the choice is this, whether to retreat into a small tribe, perhaps consisting of fellow veterans and family, or to join a wider circle of their community and of humanity. In many cases, the choices veterans make affect not just themselves but others, and sometimes many others. Aside from troubling their own friends and family, veterans can become a burden and even a threat. Unfortunately, his service has often equipped her to be serious threat, just as it has given her some of the skills and abilities to be useful and helpful.
Military service has the potential to either limit or expand a person’s range of of the people we regard as fully human. It can result in a broadening or narrowing of sympathies, in feelings of responsibility or of entitlement, in humor or humorlessness, in righteousness or self-righteousness, in kindness and charity or callousness. The veteran’s attitude will of course be shaped by her experiences, by the caliber of leadership to which he was exposed, frankly in part to fortune. Veterans have seen people at their best and their worst: heroism and cowardice, kindness and cruelty. They may be both proud of their service and ashamed of things they’ve done, witnessed, or been a party to. I admit to being lucky in this regard. Most of the leadership and conduct I was exposed to was on the plus side, and my interactions with local people on campaign, in Lebanon and Iraq, served to enhance my sense of a shared humanity. I remember visiting a family in Iraq. They were living in a bombed-out building and seemed to own almost nothing, but they insisted on us taking tea with them. We gave their little boy some hard candy from our MREs, and his delight in this treat was infectious, maybe to me especially, as one who had left three boys of my own at home, standing on the train platform with their mother in Larchmont, New York.
The veteran’s attitude and approach to civil life is also a matter of choice. Veterans with severe physical or psychic wounds have nevertheless gone on to lives of service, while others who are unscathed descend to bitterness and self-righteousness, blaming others for choices of their own and for troubles of their own making. The veteran may be suffering from trauma or some other form of impairment that make good choices difficult, but positive relationships with a diverse group of people can be part of the cure. The veteran has the choice of whether to seek out and cultivate human relationships, some of them perhaps outside his own circle, not all of them with veterans, and some at least with people different as to race, religious and political views, or to reject them.
Veterans should also be aware of that for which they are most admired. It is neither for combat skills nor toughness nor for the figure they cut in the combat or dress uniform. It is for the ideal of service that they represent, their professed willingness to subordinate self to a worthy cause and to others. It is humility, not pride, which most becomes the veteran, although perhaps both have their place. To serve was a privilege for which they should be grateful. They may choose inclusion or isolation, service or entitlement. Even if damaged, they could play a great part in the healing of our divided country.