The issue first caught my attention on Facebook, through a friend’s status update. His words were apologetic and sincere, with a subtle hint of finality. At first, I dismissed the alarm bells sounding inside my head. Then, compassion mixed with psychology kicked in. I knew I had to reach out to him, because “what if” this was intended as a final message? What if my previously deployed friend was contemplating suicide?
More than 1 million of our nation’s troops will transition out of military life over the next five years. Alarm bells are sounding and numerous groups have begun stepping up to the plate. Just this week, I had a phone chat with a “Got Your Six” team member. The group has joined forces with non-profit organizations and the entertainment industry to provide six pillars of support, as they work to bridge the gap between military service and civilian life.
I asked about another side of war’s aftermath. “Are the children’s needs specifically addressed?” Family programs are typically adult-centered, so they risk not hearing the kids’ needs first-hand. This too often forgotten population has a “voice” and the gap must be bridged for them too. Kids whose military parent is separating will also face transitions. They will lose their “badge of honor” – the military ID card, as dubbed in an interview with Caroline Cruickshank, sister of soccer champion-military brat Mia Hamm.
Kenzie Hall is a military brat who’s working to ID what military kids need for the long-haul. At just 11-years of age, she created Bratpack 11. Her program’s mission is to recognize “the children of military heroes nationwide by providing them with unforgettable experiences and connecting them with a network for continued support.” If we take the Army’s words to heart, when we take care of the soldier, we take care of the family and vice versa.
More than 50,000 wounded soldiers are confronting the unique challenges of translating their skills, leadership and dedication into serving as civilians. They are capable despite visible and invisible wounds. Soldiers to Summits is an organization that provides a “no barriers” approach to rehabilitation, aimed at helping the more than 2 million U.S. veterans coping with service connected disability. Staff Sergeant Aaron Hale, a blinded wounded warrior, recently climbed the Peruvian Andes with the group. He’s since medically retired and moved on to become a sought-after motivational speaker in Corporate America, while also pursuing a degree in finance.
For the 1 million other veterans set to transition, advanced education will help increase their opportunities. The Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University is providing such support as the “first national center in higher education focused on the social, economic, education and policy issues impacting veterans and their families post-service.” Syracuse University has actually been at the forefront since 1946 in recognizing the role education plays for returning veterans.
Interestingly, a majority of military contractors surveyed did not have access to similar transitional resources. According a recent danger zone jobs notice, private military contractors account for more than 118,000 of those currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their jobs include communications, intelligence, logistical, construction, and transportation, among other assignments.
Furthermore, it’s been reported that “contractors are 2.5 times more likely to be injured or die in the warzone.” In a survey recently conducted by The RAND Corporation, “25 percent of private contractors in the study met the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), while 18 percent screened positive for depression; about half reported alcohol abuse.” Those findings closely mirror what’s been reported within the military population: “20 percent for PTSD, 37 percent for depression, and 39 percent for alcohol abuse,” according to the Institute of Medicine.
Additionally, Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is a source of pain for an estimated 26,000 troops, in the last year alone. Some MST survivors have become catalysts for others, such as veteran Lydia Davey. She is connecting survivors to healing and inspiration through her traveling “Finding Hope Art Exhibition” and screening of the film, Invisible War.
Exactly one year ago, my friend’s Facebook message sounded an alarm. It also made me sadly aware of another side of war that has been seemingly invisible. “It was one long 7 ½ year deployment with short breaks in between, the longest break was 2 months. The PTSD was a surprise as it kind of crept up on me. I didn’t realize just how bad it was until I started to interview for different jobs,” my friend said. As a military contractor there was no support for him, before or after deployment. Molly Dunigan, political scientist at the RAND Corporation, noted that “given the extensive use of contractors in conflict areas in recent years, these findings highlight a significant but often overlooked group of people struggling with the after-effects of working in a war zone.”
Deployed contractors operate outside the military chain of command and are generally highly compensated for their work in the danger zones. Those facts have, at times, caused a military-civilian rift downrange. Still, both are serving in capacities for which they have volunteered. The outsourcing of “corporate warriors” has existed since the 1990’s. In this 12-year war, over 250 contractors have lost their lives and somewhere between 800 and 1000 have been wounded; however, the statistics are varied.
Men and women from all sides of war are returning home, and they’re bringing those experiences back with them. While some will move forward, seemingly without skipping a beat, others will encounter major hurdles as they move on with life. Soldier and contractor – thousands upon thousands of them have families waiting to transition alongside them.
As they return, America should be ready to bridge the divides, on all fronts. Sometimes that might mean reaching beyond our comfort zones, such as when a message sets off alarm bells. That happened exactly one year ago, and thankfully, my friend–a former military contractor, is alive. In part, perhaps, because I asked: “Was that a goodbye message? Can we talk?” He’s still contending with PTSD, but he’s also gaining coping skills (with a counselor’s help) and working to heal invisible wounds. For well over a decade, American men and women have deployed in honor of protecting our freedom. They have had our backs, and now it’s our turn to have theirs.