By Chris Watson
Being a Veteran on Veteran’s Day has its advantages. People offer free cups of coffee or 10% discounts. Sometimes you get a free meal. If you are wearing an appropriate hat or jacket you may even get to cut in line at a bank or restaurant. At the megamart, Lowes you can even use parking spaces that are marked “Reserved for Veterans”. I never use those, however. It feels to obvious and more importantly, my service, unlike so many of my fellow Veterans, didn’t involve the loss of a limb.
Even with all of these so called advantages, being a Veteran on Veteran’s day is also an exercise in navigating the attention. On this one day everybody jumps on the bandwagon and says, very earnestly, “Thank you for your service!”
Let me tell you a little secret. As a Veteran I truly applaud the sentiment of that statement. As a human being, however, it makes me more uncomfortable than a dentist chair.
It is an interesting phenomenon that many Veterans feel uncomfortable being recognized. To begin with, many Veterans did not choose to be Veterans. They were “invited” (read here as drafted) to active service that resulted in becoming a Veteran. There are, of course, those who never even got to be recognized as Veterans. They never came home. Finally, there are those who came home but came home injured, either on the inside, the outside, or most likely both.
All three of these classes of Veterans seem more worthy of national attention than my 8
year stint on a fast attack submarine. I served during the height of the cold war and after all, we won. The Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own ineptitude and my shipmates and I managed to ensure that every dive was followed by a successful surface. In business we call that a win-win.
Although I am honored to be recognized, it is those Veterans who carry deep scars, (visible or otherwise) that should be the focus of our national discourse. They are routinely underserved by our government and they struggle, every single day, with the aftershocks of their military experience.
Numbers Don’t Lie
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are around 20 million Veterans in the US (numbers circa 2016). For the first time Gulf War Veterans now outnumber Vietnam Vets. In the next 10 years the number of female Veterans will double. These are, as we say in the military, the facts of the ground.
Our services to this population are anemic. That is a generous descriptor. As a Veteran I would say pathetic. A survey done by the Pew Research Center tells us that the Veterans Administration has a 49% approval rating. The FBI gets a 69% and even the IRS scores scores a 58% job approval. The VA ranks at the bottom of government institutions for job approval.
An why does the VA score so low? Probably because it is under financed, understaffed and under appreciated. The job is massive and complex. The needs of Veterans run a spectrum of issues that often don’t neatly pigeon hole into a medical code or dollar amount. There is also a vast array of private and non profit groups trying to support Veterans, which is admirable but complicated. And the less said about our healthcare system and its recognition of Veteran’s issues the better.
The problem is focus. Today, only about 20% of our elected officials in Washington have prior military experience. In the 1970’s over 70% of those officials had such experience. This is a quintessential out of sight out of mind problem.
The truth is that Veteran’s affairs and Veteran’s needs are local anyway. Funding may happen nationally but to truly care for our Veterans we need to do it on a case by case basis, here in our community, one Veteran at a time.
Gratitude is best when coupled with action. On this Veteran’s Day don’t stop at thanking a Veteran for their service. Turn that sentiment into tangible activity. Patronize and support a veteran owned, led or managed business (Google is very good at identifying these businesses). Take a few minutes to write to your congressman and senator about your support of Veteran benefits and services.
Finally, if you have a Veteran in your life, whether teacher, family member, loved one or friend, reach out to them. When genuine gratitude comes from someone close it is a sentiment that will touch that Veteran profoundly.
Besides, that gratitude will last way longer than a free cup of coffee.
Chris Watson is the Publisher of RightSizelife.com and the owner of The Bard’s Coffee, both Veteran owned and supportive businesses. He served in the United States Navy from 1983 – 1991 in the Submarine Force, specifically the USS L. Mendel Rivers, SSN 686.