Are We Unknowingly Hurting Veterans as We Try to Help Them?
Updated: May 13, 2020
Imagine how it feels to be “expendable”. As a military reference, “expendable” is defined as: “Capable of being sacrificed in order to accomplish a military objective.”
If you’ve served, you know this. But if you haven’t, consider this: you signed up or were required to put your life on the line as an expendable commodity—like high-tech equipment that eventually becomes obsolete; its usefulness expired. For inanimate objects, that idea is understandable; for human beings, it’s exceptionally dehumanizing.
As well-meaning organizations seek to reach our Veterans—sharing non-stop fundraisers and a flood of information about challenges Veterans face—are we unknowingly exploiting those we’re trying to help? By assertively marketing to them, sometimes with language that hints at weakness or even neediness, are we stigmatizing our Veterans?
Some Northern Colorado Veterans think so. The “new vet marketplace” is a sentiment that’s definitely out there. That, in part, might be resulting from an abundance of resources here, and a growing stigma that service members are “wounded” and need “saving”; if so, that’s demeaning and untrue.
A Marine I know was referring to what the VA calls “Moral Injury”, a painful condition resulting from circumstances that deeply offend our sense of right and wrong—our moral code. He said no Veteran wants to be thought of as “injured”, so I better come up with a better way to describe my area of specialization. So I did; I now refer to this condition as “moral conflict: a heartbreak or ‘soul ache’ resulting from diverse moral and ethical dilemmas common in high-risk environments”.
Moral conflicts, common in both service and civilian life, can look a thousand different ways depending on the circumstances and the unique perspective of the individual experiencing them. Whether it’s a case of betrayal, unlawful acts, abuse, accidents, unexpected death of innocents (especially civilians and children), or false accusations, the one who has witnessed or taken part in such events (willingly or not), is left to wrestle with something that should ‘never have happened’, yet did happen.
Such complex misalignment with one’s expectations and personal ethics can affect one’s very sense of self moving forward. Many people ask themselves things like, “Who am I now that this happened? Does that make me a good person or bad person?”; “Who am I now that they did this to me?”; or, “What does it say about me that I was a part of that?” And such self-questioning can continue for years until answered in a healthy, self-empowering way.
In an effort to support anyone after something big has happened to them, it’s critical we don’t use language that might stigmatize them. That’s why USMC Evan Eldridge, “The Veritable Veteran”, is also particular about the words he uses. “I don’t like the term ‘broken’; it sounds definitive, final and terminal,” he explained. “Let’s use the word ‘stuck’. A lot of Veterans are stuck and simply need a hand up.” Spot-on, Evan.
Lack of cultural understanding, negative language, and over-marketing can put Veterans in a vulnerable place—precisely what military training is designed to prevent (vulnerability in service = death). That expert training is exactly what makes Veterans so resilient and independent; so to be viewed as vulnerable can, understandably, feel deeply offensive or worse.
Although most organizations serving veterans have integrity (and charge little or nothing for their services), there are a few bad apples who give “helping” a bad rap: those who simply want to capitalize on a trend; well-intended providers who lack knowledge and training; and some unethical leaders and businesses who claim to support Veterans, but use that for political gain or to garner greater market share.
I also serve Veterans. I can only assess my services via direct feedback I get from you, my teachers. You have triumphed over circumstances that would blow the mind of most “civs” who could not manage the situations you’ve confronted or endure the same grief over the brothers and sisters you’ve lost. You deserve our honor and utmost understanding, but socio-political culture hasn’t caught up with reality . . . YET.
We must listen to our Veterans, and adapt to what you tell us. As a civilian writing mainly for Veteran readers, I could get something terribly wrong . . . or at least not completely right.
So I need your input, Northern Colorado Veterans. What do you think: is the “new vet marketplace” mainly serving or exploiting our Veterans? Straight-up, please!