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When Soldiers Return Home

January 21, 2012

Watching my old comrades return from another deployment to Iraq, in time for Christmas as home, brought forth the emotions one would expect of such an event: Wishing I’d been with them, relief at not having been gone away for a year, pride at their accomplishments, and concern for those coming back to the mundane troubles of our world, especially to unemployment.  After a year or more of active duty, of having been enmeshed in a team, of living cheek-and-jowl with their comrades, and of having been depended upon in life-and-death situations, it is doubtless jarring to be non-essential, expendable, unemployed.  Empty hours replace their predecessors, who bulged with action and moment, with expectation and preparation, or with rest earned through exhausting effort and unending care.

Unemployment for returning veterans is a national problem.  It runs as high as 30% in many studies and surveys.  Part of the problem is an economy that is in pause between a recession of great magnitude and perhaps the start of another; part is intrinsic to having served.  The latter category includes the burdens veterans carry after having seen combat; in this war, PTSD, not uncommon among those who’ve lived through sustained, heavy combat, is joined by ‘traumatic brain injury,’ a signature injury of these wars, a result of roadside bomb detonations delivering kinetic, non-lethal injuries to the occupants of vehicles damaged by them.  Another reason for returning veterans’ high unemployment rate is that many civilian employers do not understand the military, its’ culture, nor the skill sets that veterans undoubtedly have.  Military jargon, like that of any other profession, is often peculiar enough that a layman may not understand what it means.  Some military skills are so specific to the soldier’s trade that they do not have close civilian equivalents.  All of the above add to the burden of re-adjusting to civilian life, of reuniting with family, of trying to re-integrate with people in civilian life who do not generally understand them anymore, as the combat veteran’s experiences are outside the realm of understanding of those who have not experienced them.

Michigan’s Governor and Adjutant General recently launched a program to help connect employers with returning veterans.  The task is one ripe for action, and one hopes that their efforts are crowned with success.  The strife and struggle are behind, in one sense, for my old comrades and for others like them, but  new challenges beckon, more mundane but of urgent importance.  Finding a dignified way to support oneself and one’s family after serving one’s country shouldn’t be as daunting as going over there and coming back again.

For those interested in PTSD and warfare, the best books about it are two written by a Boston VA psychiatrist who only deals with Vietnam veterans who have it.  They are ‘Achilles in Vietnam‘ and ‘Odysseus in America,’ and they use the ‘Iliad‘ and the ‘Odyssey‘ to demonstrate the universality of the experience, as it was known from the time of the fall of Troy down to our own.


An alumnus of the Tuskegee Airmen greets the commander of the 182d Field Artillery at the unit's combined 'Yellow Ribbon' and change-of-command ceremony

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