OPINION: It’s time we actually serve those who served us

Many of the 18.2 million American veterans bear physical, mental and emotional scars from their service to our country – lifelong residual effects of their selflessness and sacrifice in volunteering for the armed forces.

Once a year, free meals, reduced ticket prices and special online deals for veterans spring up on Veterans Day as an acknowledgement of these men and women. The day is filled with countless friends and strangers alike passing along a well-meaning, “Thank you for your service.” Then, just like every year, the two parties part ways and move on, the civilian feeling good about themselves for thanking a veteran and the veteran returning to a life often filled with unique post-deployment struggles that not even the sincerest “thank you” can solve. 

“Most military veterans don’t think that the civilian population understands the depths of their sacrifice and service,” said Tom Aiello, an Army veteran, who works at Leave No Veteran Behind, an organization that provides student debt relief, job training and transitional employment opportunities to veterans. “But we all volunteered; there’s not a draft. We know what we’re getting into, so we don’t feel like we’re owed anything. That’s not the attitude of veterans.”

Regardless of whether veterans think they deserve the spotlight, Americans need to do better when it comes to taking care of their own. An increase in understanding the nature of the military is the first step, creating a better understanding of how civilian life differs entirely from what veterans have come to know during their time serving. 

“It’s a complete culture shock,” said George Murad, former Marine and president of the DePaul Student Veterans Union. “You go from being in this environment where everything is so intense. You have a goal. You have a mission you do everything very detailed, very particular.” Once home though, “everything’s a little bit more relaxed, but you still have that anxiety because your standards are up here and you’re trying to meet these standards.”

Importantly, this seismic shift in day-to-day life often results in instability elsewhere in life. Our country’s veterans experience homelessness at a disproportionate rate compared to the rest of the population. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that in January 2018, just over 37,800 veterans were homeless on any given night. Former service members are also routinely unemployed or underemployed, hired for positions well below their skill set. 

“A lot of times when you’re leaving the military or you’re a veteran, you face a challenge going from job to job or trying to get extra money to allow yourself to get more education or get some training or just make ends meet,” Aiello said. Even further, “very few of the professional certifications in the military translate” to civilian positions at home, forcing veterans to take jobs well below their skill set or pay for more training, he said.

While veterans organizations like his aim to solve these issues, the concerns of American veterans need to be brought to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness, not remain an afterthought left for a handful of specialty organizations. 

It’s a common, yet often misguided, understanding that veterans and members of the military are not often ones to ask for help. But they shouldn’t have to. This country should have every resource imaginable ready and waiting for our troops the second they step foot on American soil after deployment. Veterans shouldn’t be left to fend for themselves in academia, the job hunt or the health care system within the Department of Veterans Affairs. Instead, they should be treated like our gratitude for their sacrifice extends beyond one day a year, which it undoubtedly should. 

Veterans Day is a yearly reminder of an often underserved population, many of whom are an example of the exact qualities that make the U.S. great. It’s time we as a country acknowledge that and start to truly appreciate that America is the home of the free because of the brave.