As a Veteran living in the United States, I am grateful every time someone goes out of their way to say, “thank you for your service!” I don’t always know how to respond, but I am grateful that we live in a country where it’s citizens value those who were willing to defend the ideals that make us great. Yellow ribbons, bumper stickers, and patriotic parades all reflect a corporate awareness that we would not be able to do the things we do were it not for those who have gone before us. We value liberty so we must put value on those who have made liberty possible.
In part, we thank those who have served because we know that their service has not come without a cost. Broken homes, a lifetime of “former jobs” and a suicide rate of more than 20 a day for veterans are far to common. While many who have served have been able to transition into meaningful careers and relationships, many more have not. To transition out of the military is to leave an identity and a “family” that once provided security, stability and a depth of connection to other members of that family that can be found nowhere else in the world. Separating from that environment can be emotionally the same as losing a family member to death or divorce. And just as when one experiences the loss of a family member, getting back to some degree of “normal” takes time and a re-connection to others.
There was a time in my life when I did not understand just how important this connection, or re-connection, really is. As someone who had served in Iraq as a Marine, I thought that the depression, loneliness and loss could be treated by the institution. The Veterans Administration and clinical facilities should, at least I believed, fix these problems created by combat. Cleary these were medical issues, or at the very least psychological ones, that needed to be addressed by the professionals. I lived my life dealing with my own struggles without a clear understanding of just how wrong I was. It was not more medicine or counseling that was needed, it was more connection!
I finally understood the importance of connection nearly ten years after I left the Marine Corps. For the first time since I put the uniform away, I had the opportunity to sit and talk to several of the men I served with in combat. Hearing stories of how so many others had struggled, I realized that I was not alone and that I had a responsibility to do what I could to help those who were hurting. I understood for the first time that Military service does not stop simply because you put the uniform away.
Military service is a lifelong commitment to STAND UP for the Constitution and to STAND NEXT to those who are also serving.
This realization led to a shift in my thinking, my relationships, and ultimately in my life’s work. I now work in an organization led by veterans and service members designed to stand with other veterans and service members as they navigate so many of life’s ups and downs. While there is clearly a place for the Veterans Administration and for those that provide clinical care, the most effective way to care for someone else is to be present with them. This principle is so important to the work that we do in fact, that our tagline is, “Never Fight Alone.” The reason that so many relationships are broken, jobs are lost, and lives are taken is because of the overwhelming feeling of “alone” for those that understand true, combat tested, connection. In that sense then, connection is a life-saving and sustaining tool that if removed will have severe consequences for those who have given so much.
And here we are. Living at a time where the very government that our service men and women have represented on battlefields around the world, is telling them to isolate, stay at home, and do their best to hang on. It is as if the very people who sent us to war are saying:
“Thank you for your service-Now go away.”
And so, we linger in a government-imposed isolation because we are afraid of some bad that MIGHT come. In the face of an uncertain future we are willing to strip away the very ideal of Liberty and trample on the documents that make it an American right while isolating and causing certain harm to those who once defended it. But veterans are not the only ones struggling. Those who manufacture, farm, drive, create, build, and work often at great personal risk, making this the greatest country on earth, are being told that in spite of the fact that they ARE America, they need to stay away in isolation until the professionals sound the “all clear.”
They did not work, and veterans did not serve, to live in fear. Meanwhile, the consequences of fear, panic, and isolation will be much greater than a virus that will come and go. Families will be dealing with the government-imposed suspension of civil liberties long after a vaccine for COVID-19 is found.
It is time that we stop paying lip service to the sacrifices of those who have made America great and begin to honor those sacrifices by once again getting out of the way of those unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” To do so is the only path forward. Anything less will crush the very people we seek to protect.
Originally Published April 2020