The Dangers of a Sensationalist Portrayal of Veterans

AUGUST 5, 2013, 2:02 PM

The Dangers of a Sensationalist Portrayal of Veterans

By DAVID EISLER

If you listen closely to the national conversation about today’s veterans, you will hear two stories that seem to be at odds with each other.

One story is about healthy, hard-working, disciplined, well-trained and experienced veterans who would be an asset to any business or organization. The other tells of broken, disabled, traumatized veterans who have physical and behavioral health issues and require constant care and supervision.

While advocates and groups are making the case that businesses should hire veterans because they are mostly of the first type, their voices are often undermined by the widespread belief that most veterans fall into the second category, which is only true for a minority. For those without serious issues, the perception that all veterans are struggling has become a stigma that has been difficult to shake.

Survey after survey suggests that the United States military is one of the most respected institutions in American society.

A Gallup poll in January indicated that 74 percent of Americans are satisfied with country’s military strength and preparedness. The military is the only institution to see a notable gain in public confidence since Gallup began taking measurements in the 1970s, while other institutions like big business, the church and Congress have seen their numbers steadily decline.

Another recent survey from Harvard’s Institute of Politics showed that among young Americans, the military is the only national institution to maintain its level of trust in the last three years, while trust in the media, Wall Street and all levels of local and federal government has dropped.

But while institutional confidence and trust remain high in abstract terms, the military as a profession struggles to convince much of society that it is a desirable profession. Although military recruitment has broadly met its goals despite the toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a Pew Research study found that 43 percent of people without a family member who had served on active duty would not recommend the military as a career. I suspect that a large part of that view is a result of concerns that most veterans come home forever scarred by their experiences.

There is an incongruity here between society’s respect for the military and its fear of the ways that military life can reshape people. I believe part of that fear can be traced to the small proportion of Americans in uniform. When so few people are directly connected to those who serve, stereotypes gain traction. And they are easy to sensationalize with eye-catching headlines about post-traumatic stress disorder and difficulties readjusting to civilian life after years of war.

But here is something to consider: one story need not exclude the other. As anyone who has spent time in the world of soldiers and veterans knows, serving in war and enduring its hardships have made many veterans stronger. At the same time, that has also deeply and unquestionably affected them. So it is hardly out of the ordinary to imagine a veteran who could be an asset to a corporation or as a public servant, but who would also require some degree of care and attention outside work.

For many people with no direct relationship to the military, though, the competing depictions may present an unsolvable paradox. Without a deeper personal connection to someone who served, it can be difficult to comprehend a veteran’s experiences and the role they should play back in civilian society.

The result? For years, the headlines about combat veterans with post-traumatic stress, high suicide rates, and other mental health issues may have made businesses reluctant to hire qualified veterans. That perception may in turn have contributed to the high level of veteran unemployment of recent years and created yet another barrier between civilians and veterans. When veterans struggle to adapt under the emotional and financial strain, the cycle only continues.

The truth lies somewhere in between. Military service changes everyone in some way, and while some veterans face significant challenges as they move to civilian life, others emerge stronger. Both sides vying for control of the story could vastly improve the national conversation by acknowledging the other side’s existence. Trying to brand us as the “New Greatest Generation,” as some have forcefully done in recent years, is not enough. Only by accepting that the portrayal has two sides can we help veterans and civilians talk to each other at a level above stereotypes and first impressions.

David Eisler was an active-duty officer in the Army from 2007 to 2012 and served in Germany, Iraq and Afghanistan with the Second Cavalry Regiment. He is now a graduate student at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, where he is studying international security policy.

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