In the first week of June, along with IAVA staff and veteran volunteers, I had the pleasure of participating in IAVA’s recurring advocacy campaign, Storm the Hill. Collectively, we systematically dispersed throughout the halls of Congress to make our voices heard on behalf of post-9/11 veterans. Being an IAVA staff member since January 2016, it may seem fairly ordinary that I would be part of this effort, but in some ways I came to the role with a different perspective. My unique point of view and evolving perspective is what I’d like to share.
First of all, while IAVA primarily represents the post-9/11 generation of veterans, I am of an earlier generation. Entering the U.S. Naval Academy in 1981, I served my country mostly during peacetime, resigning my Navy commission in December 1992 after the short-lived First Gulf War. Though training for potential conflict was a significant part of my Naval Air career, I never actually saw war up close. I did not lose any close friends to a war zone, and, though traumatized by seeing my countrymen in harm’s way during the First Gulf War, I came through those eleven and a half years physically and mentally intact.
That is my distinct and privileged vantage point.
Now I find myself working at IAVA as Associate Director, Development Operations. In my work, I witness daily the pain and struggles of America’s newest generation of veterans. Our soldiers come back from deployments with PTSD, TBI, MST, and a whole host of other physical and emotional scars. War is hell.
Academically, I understand the range of issues specific to post-9/11 veterans, and I’m proud to work in the largest veteran service organization representing post-9/11 vets. IAVA is constantly advocating for veterans so that they’re not forgotten… so that government funding doesn’t get cut from existing programs they need… so that service-connected health issues are addressed in a timelier manner than in the past (i.e. Vietnam/Agent Orange}. My colleagues and I have a significant impact on the plight of today’s veterans every day.
All in all, I would say I’m fairly enlightened on veteran issues.
After my experience with Storm the Hill though, I can honestly say my perspective has evolved. While working so closely with IAVA’s extraordinary legislative and research staff and advocating alongside passionate volunteer veterans, the shared experience gave me a new clarity that I didn’t have before.
In numerous meetings with Senators and Representatives, I heard my fellow veterans relate their experiences being exposed to airborne toxins from burn pits, a disposal process used by the U.S. military to dispose of everything consumed by a forward deployed unit, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. They spoke of their immediate and lingering ill health effects presumed to be caused by this disposal practice. They passionately asked members of Congress to authorize the VA and DOD to collect data to study the health effects of burn pits, thereby avoiding a shameful situation like the four-decades-long debacle with Vietnam vets and Agent Orange.
Nothing in my military experience compares to that.
I heard female veterans recount experiencing substandard healthcare and outright disrespect from a VA designed for the male veteran. As the fastest growing subset of U.S. military veterans, women do not currently receive care and respect equivalent to men for their service, even though that military service was oftentimes literally side-by-side with their male counterparts in the most dangerous areas of the globe.
Nothing in my military experience compares to that.
I heard post-9/11 veterans telling very personal stories of insomnia, nightmares and post-traumatic stress as they struggled to reconcile the horrific realities of war with the instinctive nurturing traits required by family and community. They recounted stories of alcohol and drugs consumed to numb physical and emotional pain. These veterans survived their struggles, but they are the lucky ones…. Currently, it’s estimated that 20 veterans a day commit suicide when they are unable to cope with their demons. Almost all the post-9/11 veterans I talk to know someone who took their own life.
Nothing in my military experience compares to that!
While all veterans deserve our respect, my involvement in Storm the Hill resulted in my increased respect for the post-9/11 generation of veterans, especially for those who personally shared their stories with me. I came to realize how much courage is required of this latest generation of veterans! They commit to the unknown of an all-volunteer military during wartime, then they frequently face a difficult journey of reintegration with their families and communities once they return from war. Two battlefronts. And both are battles that can be won or lost.
By providing the right resources, such as Mental Healthcare and the Forever GI Bill, our nation can help heal the invisible war wounds and empower the next generation of civic and government leaders. IAVA works hard every day to secure and protect such investment in the well-being of all veterans. It’s an investment in the future of our country, and it’s a job that seems as worthwhile to me as my military service.
In a sense, my service to country is not over! Honestly, as a veteran of a different era, I have sometimes felt like an interloper in the post-9/11 generation’s narrative. But it turns out they need me.
Actually… they need all of us.