The standard media story about veterans returning to civilian life doesn’t sound right from the veterans’ point of view.
For decades, we’ve read about how hard it is for “wounded” and “broken” veterans. We need to “help” them. They need easier ways to “assimilate” to civilian life. The story I hear from veterans, however, isn’t about physical or emotional scars, but loss of community.
When servicemen and women began returning from Afghanistan and Iraq more than a decade ago, I noticed that they often volunteered for new tours —to the disbelief of their family and friends. They rarely gave me any explanation beyond tight-lipped, single-word responses.
Over the years, I’ve been privileged to hear more — privileged because veterans don’t readily describe their experiences to civilians like me. I make so many assumptions about their trauma that I miss the power of their unity and mission. I offer them pity they don’t want.
They come from a world of intricate training, high skills, accurate execution, and deep sacrifice — every day. They perform feats of coordination, in which their individual expertise combines with others in chaos and under stress. They have the strength that comes from being bound to others.
To what do they return as civilians?
They come back to a world of arrogant incompetence, in which accuracy, attention to detail, and technical fluency are way too much to expect. In the civilian world, the slightest inconvenience is traumatic. From the homeless to the trust-fund baby, we flout standards of civility for the sake of our authentic selves. There isn’t a single institution that isn’t being wrecked by the negligence of helpless, entitled consumers.
Veterans see that civilians no longer have a mission beyond pleasing themselves. The reason we lack discipline and fidelity is that we don’t need them. My only mission is me.
So veterans come from a world of complex operations to a society that can no longer manage a four-way stop. Veterans do not feel able to say this, but I will. The most “broken” veteran among us is a virtuoso of resilience and skill. I don’t want veterans to assimilate to us. I want us to assimilate to them.
It should be our mission.