I have been doing quite a bit of thinking about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the challenges our veterans face upon returning to civilian life. There has been a historic divide between the civilian and the military that was most evident during and after the war in Vietnam. But I would go so far to suggest that this divide preceded the war in Vietnam.
The prevailing sentiment among the public seems to have been that if a particular war was not popular, then the veterans of that war did not warrant our concern. At the time of the war in Vietnam, some even thought those veterans deserved scorn. Only years later did it occur to many that serving in an unpopular war did not necessarily mean that our veterans should be unpopular, as well.
We may have made a little progress since Vietnam, but I don't think that enough people are concerned about our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and the many difficulties they face adjusting to civilian life. Anecdotal information bears me out on this.
In addition, consider that the jobless rate for veterans is very high, at 11 percent. During the past year, we lost more soldiers to suicide than we did to combat. The terrible wounds they have sustained, such as posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, will endure for a very long time. Thanks to combat medical advances, they are surviving physical wounds on the battlefield that our Vietnam veterans would never have survived.
A 2010 survey by Blue Star Families, an organization for military families, found that "92 percent of 3,600 military families agreed that the general public neither understands nor appreciates the sacrifices made by service members and their families."
Too often, the public at large thinks that we need not be concerned, because the VA is providing everything that is required, that they are all things to all veterans. Such thinking is naive and precludes more effective and creative approaches to the problem.
The truth is that more attention needs to be paid to veterans and to what might be done in the private sector to make their lives better, to embrace them as our brothers and sisters who have sacrificed so much. There are not enough organizations here in Memphis that are designed to help our younger veterans.
We can bridge that divide between the civilian and the military by means of organized activities that enable our veterans to have viable contact with the civilian population. Camping, cookouts, team sports (military vs. civilian teams), such as football, soccer, and softball would be excellent ways to achieve this. Team sports would be especially important in that our veterans would be able to experience the camaraderie and esprit de corps that was so important while they were deployed. Other activities could include hiking, hunting, fishing, and motorcycling.
Consider that such an effort is firmly within the Judeo-Christian tradition, and it is a means for us to express our gratitude to some very special people. The more civilians and veterans get to know one another, the opportunity for veterans to get jobs will be all the greater.
The war may be over for many, but there are still battles to be fought. Embracing our young veterans would reflect the very best of patriotism — and of us as Americans. Such an endeavor is beyond race, religion, politics, and gender. I am suggesting nothing less than a dedicated cadre of citizens, a synergy of the civilian and the military to address these matters in a thorough and comprehensive manner.
And we should by all means include the religious community in this effort. Currently, there is surprisingly little participation on their part.
We can demonstrate the power of small, localized groups to create "real and permanent good," in the words of Andrew Carnegie. We could refer to such an initiative as the Civilian-Military Roundtable. In so doing, we could develop a community tradition that transcends the occasional and symbolic. Let's give our veterans the personal attention they so richly deserve.
Kingsley Hooker is a Memphian and a graduate of the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration.