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Bridging the Military Civilian Divide

“Where did you serve?” “Are you a veteran, too?” I am often asked these questions, or some variation of them, by the veterans that I work with as a Senior Veteran Transition Manager with IAVA. As a trained social worker, I am taught not to answer personal questions and should instead, ask the significance of a client knowing this information. Usually, I am met with a response that implies a need for connection or shared experience with me. To which, I undoubtedly know that even if I was a veteran, our experiences would be undeniably different.

A sense of connection and belonging is a universal feeling amongst people. Social workers and sociologists refer to this phenomenon as “homophily,” – a term coined for the fact that people tend to have positive bonds with one another based on socially significant experiences. Think about the friends you have. Where did you meet them? School? Work? Most people make friends and form other significant relationships through similar experiences. Meeting someone from your hometown in a completely different part of the country instantly gives you a connection that you wouldn’t have otherwise had and automatically makes you feel a little more bonded.

The same notion is true for veterans. They are bonded by service, branch, experience. Currently, the number of people who have been involved in the military is at an all time low. Reportedly, 84% of post-9/11 veterans say that the public doesn’t understand issues faced by those in the military or their families. This is by and large where the Military Civilian Divide resides. The gap is created not by the notion of not caring. On the contrary, sources say that the public’s confidence in the military is the highest it’s been in decades. Instead, I choose to think about the Military Civilian Divide as being a gap in knowledge. From thinking about the divide from the lens of a lack of knowledge there are some things that I believe to be true about how to lessen the gap between the military and civilian “worlds.”

Bridging the divide is a shared burden – It takes two to tango and it will take effort from both military and civilian alike to close the gap.

To begin bridging the divide we all need to start with understanding – Everyone needs to understand that no one knows everything and no two people experience something the exact same way. Interpretations and perspectives are unique. That is why they are yours.

Only you are the expert of your life – You are writing your own story everyday and no one else can know exactly what is on that page. That is okay. You can share as much or as little as you want with whomever you would like. And, never apologize for not knowing more about someone else’s story – they are the expert on their own life too.

Education is key – If you don’t know something, that is okay. Ask questions. Come from a place of curiosity. Acknowledge where you need more understanding/knowledge. Grow. It may be uncomfortable but that is okay too. Transformation usually is. Learning is lifelong and it is one thing we should never stop doing.

November is a time when veterans are often brought to the forefront of people’s mind. News and media outlets host more shows and stories about veterans’ issues. Major cities host parades in honor of Veteran’s Day. Service providers tend to see an uptick in the amount of clients that reach out for assistance during this month. The VA even creates a “National Veterans and Military Families Month” Calendar in November. Suffice it to say that veterans are more likely to be remembered, honored, and thought of during this month. However, we should be working to bridge this divide every month and every day, not just in November.

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