Much has been made of the many issues facing veterans in our country and the myriad of services and organizations addressing their needs. In fact, veterans returning from war have all faced similar issues through the centuries. These are the common dynamics of adjusting to civilian life, reengaging with work and education, recovery from injuries, both visible and invisible, and the challenges navigating complex systems of support. At a minimum, it can be a daunting task.
There is a more fundamental need that remains unaddressed in this entire landscape. This is the place of the civilian and our necessary relationship to veterans. One of the most difficult challenges veterans face is the sense that their country doesn’t quite realize that the nation, and not just the soldiers, went to war. The burden of war rests on all our shoulders. The chasm or gap between understanding life in a combat zone and life less directly touched by war creates a profound sense of isolation for veterans. Perhaps the most debilitating is the absence of communities for both veterans and civilians to share the impact of war upon veterans and civilians alike. These communities can make a powerful impact that transfers the burden of war on all of our shoulders.
In ancient times societies used to ritualize both the sending and return of warriors to their community. Civilians were seen as vital in this process. Yet we’ve lost this capacity and ritual process and in doing so have contributed to the plight of veterans in our country. Both groups are in need of each other and have something vital to offer. Carrying home a host of brutal and traumatic experiences, veterans often manifest the unresolved wounds of war through a constellation of mental health disorders (PTSD, substance use, depression, etc.). Civilians, in turn, carry hidden wounds from the trauma of long-term separation, fear, anxiety and the loss of veterans who are family members, neighbors, colleagues, and fellow citizens.
Despite these shared wounds, there is a profound and paralyzing absence of sharing and community between veterans and civilians about their experiences related to war. Veterans are separated from the whole of society by their very roles. They step into an extreme way of functioning, altogether foreign from civilian life. Civilians are similarly separated from the whole, uninformed of veterans’ experience, misguided in their lack of knowledge and understanding of how to support veterans.
Repeatedly, our societal response to these conditions is reactive; while we work to ensure vets have access to care if and when a mental health disorder appears, we do little to decipher what we might do to prevent the development of such disorders in the first place. While we provide civilians with superficial mechanisms to recognize veterans’ for their service, we do little to provide civilians with a meaningful way to connect with those who have served on their behalf.
The Mental Health Association of New York City (MHA-NYC) and its Stories We Carry project has embarked on a national community building initiative that aims to create communities for veterans to return to. The project brings together both veterans and civilians to discuss the impact of the military and transition issues on both groups, each having something vital for the other. Directly developing and deepening these connections between veterans and civilians promotes a greater context of goodwill and responsibility, important for healing and successful return. Ultimately, this social healing initiative provides a mechanism for communication, health and wholeness that preventatively mitigates the impact of war on both veterans and civilians.
Additionally, veterans have great need for a more informed and militarily culturally competent public. A common myth is that most veterans receive their care at a local VA clinic or hospital. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, more than half of veterans do not access the VA for services. If they receive services, they prefer to receive them in the communities in which they live. Unfortunately, all too often veterans return to local communities that are not prepared to meet their health, mental health, and social service needs. This requires civilian based service providers to be better prepared to respond to the challenges of veterans with health and behavioral health needs. To meet this need, The Veterans Mental Health Coalition of New York City (VMHC), co-founded by MHA-NYC and NAMI-NYC Metro in 2009, and comprised of over 1,000 individuals and organizations in NYC, provides an ongoing Educational Lecture series that includes panels of veterans to share their experiences directly with providers. The VMHC also advocated and received important funding from the NYC Council on an initiative to offer training to additional providers such as mobile crisis teams, EMS, police cadets, and local health centers. The VMHC continues to be a leading voice in promoting the mental health and well-being of veterans and their families. With a diverse cross section of key stakeholders, the VMHC disseminates information, resources, and best practices as well as fostering needed practice and policy changes to improve care and supports for veterans with behavioral health needs and their family members.
We know how critical it is for veterans, especially those in crisis, to have adequate relationships and services that address the unique challenges they face. The Veterans Crisis Line connects veterans of all ages and service eras who are in crisis and their families and friends with qualified, caring Department of Veterans Affairs responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text. By dialing 1-800-273-8255, and pressing “1” when prompted, veterans and their loved ones will receive confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. In partnership with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), MHA-NYC administers this line, which has provided life-saving assistance to more than 1.25 million veterans and members of the armed services since 2007.
The weight of war belongs collectively on all of our shoulders. For too long we have asked veterans to bear this alone, and at great cost to them. It is this shift in focus to include the civilian and the proper relationship between veterans and civilians. Entering into community with veterans benefits civilians by tapping into a collective impulse and need that we have to carry the weight of war alongside veterans. It further benefits civilians by providing them meaningful ways, beyond the bumper sticker, parades and the greetings at the airport, to show their ongoing support. More importantly, it also reverses the trend of “fixing veterans,” all too common in our efforts.