August 1, 2019

Are Younger Vets Bowling Alone?

Younger man in uniform confronts two older vets at a gatheringLast month, our communities, large and small, held parades for the 4th of July. It was good to be in that old-fashioned summertime world, kids waving flags and dripping ice cream, and veterans who are now seniors marching proudly with their VFW post. Although, actually, there are fewer of those older vets now – and you don’t see so many younger ones marching.

We have about 20 million veterans in the United States. Since September 11, 2001, some four million service members have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and on other missions. About 300,000 vets from recent conflicts are among the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ 1.6 million members, but Vietnam-era veterans make up the largest percentage.Only about 15% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are eligible to join the VFW had done so, reported the Washington Times in 2014, and the average age of members was nearly 70. It’s similar for the other veterans organizations, such as the American Legion, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Amvets.

Why the decline? Two years ago, Les Davis, the military affairs director at International Education Corporation, wrote an article entitled “Why Are the Younger Veterans Avoiding the Veteran Service Organizations?” Davis had researched the lower participation rates of post-Vietnam generation of veterans. He blamed poor marketing. Most VSOs, he wrote, were “standing by and waiting for this younger generation of veterans to just walk in and join like their fathers and grandfathers before them.” He offered a list of 12 perhaps-predictable action steps to boost membership: more outreach, keeping meetings short, free Wi-Fi, and the need to remember that “both men and women have served honorably.” All good points, but the issue runs deeper.

NPR’s “All things Considered” spoke last August with a woman Navy veteran who a few years ago had set about revitalizing an American Legion Post in Seattle. Despite considerable success, she found “the culture of Post 40 was hard to endure” and, citing sexism and racism, she resigned and started Minority Veterans of America. The Washington Times article described certain veterans groups as “unwelcoming and out of touch with the needs of post-September 11 veterans.” Those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan gravitate toward more-modern organizations, it said, such as Student Veterans of America and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Which is fine, but what about those who aren’t gravitating? Veterans of today – with greater diversity in their ranks, far more women members, and a culture of enlistment – may feel less of a bond with their earlier, mostly male, mostly drafted, cohorts. The issues perceived as urgent may have shifted. Those topping the list for many younger returnees –healthcare, education, housing – have all of risen disproportionately in cost since the Vietnam era.

The lesser likelihood of group participation may also be a reflection of how we have become less of a nation of joiners, as suggested by Robert Putnam’s classic book, Bowling Alone. Our lives and communities, Putnam argues, have been impoverished by the dissolving fabric of our connections with family, friends, and neighbors.

Irrespective of the factors most responsible, these trends raise the question of whether the social fabric that returning vets need – to ground them and embrace them home – is too impoverished to function as they should. A large body of research has shown that social support is key to mental health generally and, for those coming home, to successful reintegration into civilian society. But without the now-less-wanted support and community of veterans organizations, are younger veterans lacking in the community they need in order to do well?

“When it comes to posttraumatic stress disorder, strong social support can often mean the difference between recovery and deterioration,” researchers wrote in the journal Psychiatric Services. A study in the Journal of Traumatic Stress noted that “maintaining the social support of military peers after active duty is associated with better physical health among women veterans, regardless of whether they have posttraumatic stress disorder.”

A recent study that focused specifically on the difficulties the newest generation of post-combat veterans faces pointed out that the public associates the needs of returning services members largely with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and suicide, “but the great majority of the veterans of post-9/11 wars need social services that will help them transition back to civilian life.” The finding is echoed by findings that public focus on serious mental health problems such as PTSD may be obscuring the more widespread issue of “transition stress.”

The Veterans Administration has increasingly recognized the issues of transition as an important part of its charge in ministering to returning service members’ health. The agency has gone a long way since 2008 – the year of peak deployment – in transforming its services to accommodate the need, including reducing red tape, offering broader services, and allowing the use of community care. But a congressionally mandated review released last year found a “substantial unmet need for mental health services.” Among those returning from recent conflicts, roughly half of those who showed a need for mental health care said they were not receiving it.

Even among veterans without physical or psychological disorders, research has shown that 25% or more report difficulty in social functioning, self-care, or other major life domains following deployment.” And the “transition stress” literature suggests that community organizations and other interpersonal and societal factors may be key to successful reintegration.

Some of the newer, “alternative” VSOs – such as Student Veterans of America, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Team Red, White and Blue – seek to provide that, offering a focus on healthcare, education, and fitness. A recent New York Times article carried a photo of Team Red, White and Blue’s climbing-wall meetup. The Wounded Warrior project made fitness, with its “lower stress levels, improved mood, increased energy,” part of their outreach. Successful reintegration assistance was also the main mission of our own Illinois Warrior to Warrior initiative, which trained volunteer veterans to assist with a variety of outreach and educations services during the peak years of 2012-16 to help returning service members bridge the gap. And, as the Washington Times noted, younger veterans are favoring groups organized around activities that are not specifically military, such as running or volunteering, or ones with civilians in the mix – ones where they are embedded in their community.

And that may be part of the point – that to succeed at assisting reintegration we must prioritize inclusion and find ways to dispel the invisibility of the veterans among us. No single agency can transition four million people into society by working alone. To properly help and welcome our returning service members, we have to make sure we are able to see them, and adapt and build organizations and services that provide for the needs of veterans within modern life, whether that is through fitness, more inclusive organizations, childcare, or volunteering.

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