Veterans Day 2013 Marks the End and a Beginning

Veterans offer advice, even to protesters, on how to talk to them on final wartime holiday.

U.S. Army Pfc. Jordan Adams provides security from a hilltop during a meeting with Afghan national police in Bagram in Afghanistan's Parwan province, Sept. 7, 2013.
By + More

The VFW's principle concern is the effect of these backlogs, as well as the sequestration shutdown that shuttered many veterans support facilities, on the ability for the military to maintain its strength.

War brings with it increased attention to the dark underbelly of the military. Headlines since 2002 have told of wartime atrocities, both toward the enemy and in the form of military sexual assaults and hazing. The improvised explosive devices that have defined the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq inflict post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries on those who served there.

The Marine Corps' top leaders referenced this in an Oct. 16 letter to all Marine non-commissioned officers.

"We are returning to [the continental United States] to rearm and refit in order to fight again when our nation least expects it," wrote Commandant Gen. James Amos and Sgt. Maj. Michael Barrett, the sergeant major of the Marine Corps. "Those who aren't living up to the title Marine within our midst are disrupting the return to immediate readiness, soiling our honor, and causing the American people to lose trust in us!"

"Disregarding orders and standards, substance abuse, sexual assault, hazing, self-destructive behavior, and failure to maintain personal fitness and appearance standards weakens our Corps and dishonors all who have endured wars' hardships," they continued. "This insurgency of wrong doing is invading our homes and destroying our credibility."

The note concluded with an emboldened line "Discipline today leads to victory tomorrow."

Amos' and Barrett's words highlight how the public has perceived elements of the military. When combined with the few numbers who fought in wars abroad, it creates a disconnect between the two groups.

"The image is either 'Rambo' or it's 'Full Metal Jacket,'" says Derek Bennett, an Army officer who served two tours in Iraq, and as a special assistant to former Army Gen. David Petraeus.

"Everybody's afraid that if you ask me about my service that I'm going to have a PTSD flashback," he says. "That's not said a lot, but that's what everyone is worried about."

[READ: 4 Lessons the Afghanistan Drawdown Could Learn from Iraq]

Bennett, now chief of staff at the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says such terms have become "a meme, a trope really," that media outlets, politicians and activists readily trot out without understanding its effect.

"I have PTSD. I don't love crowds, but I was probably that way beforehand," quips Bennett. But he points to an ongoing stigma that, for example, those diagnosed with PTSD are thus transformed into homicidal maniacs on a hair trigger.

This is not only untrue, but quite the opposite, according to psychology experts.

It still leaves a void between veterans and the general public, and both believing neither understands the other.

Bennett suggests that could end with a handshake.

"It starts with a conversation" he says. "It demystifies the situation."

Veterans are just as diverse as those who didn't serve in uniform. Some could desperately want a care package, Bennett says as an example. Others might be sick of them.

Ask a veteran about their service, he adds, staying away from the cliches of "Did you have to kill anyone" or even "What is that like?" Instead ask about training school, or what it's like to rappel out of a helicopter or jump out of an airplane.

Perhaps the veteran went to a service academy or famous collegiate military training program, and would want to talk about that.

"You have no idea what this person has been through, good or bad," says SWAN's Bhagwati. "Not assuming is a really great gift people can give."

"People assume every woman who has been through the military has been raped. To label veterans as victims is really problematic, even veterans who have been victimized," she says.

Bhagwati says she tends to be more optimistic about the country having witnessed its incredible growth since Sept. 11, 2001. Any conversation should lead to a national discussion, she says, about America's foreign policy and all who it has helped or harmed. She hopes these stigmas won't be all that frames it.