I recently attended a conference at which participants were tasked with brainstorming solutions to ease veterans' reentry into civilian life. And with more and more members of the military coming home in the next few years, reentry will continue to be a major issue for years to come. In order to make sure our troops are not sidelined, I propose a reverse draft.
Why is veteran reentry a problem? Veterans I've spoken with told me that after a tour -- or four tours -- in Iraq or Afghanistan, coming back to their previously normal lives just doesn't feel so normal anymore. What was once enjoyable and significant -- pop culture, cellphone fights with loved ones -- now pales in comparison to the experience of holding a friend in your arms as they died in combat or pulling a flaming soldier out of a burning vehicle.
Because of such disparate experiences, there's an automatic wall -- an "us" vs. "them" mentality -- that exists when a veteran returns home and it's palpable. It's much easier for veterans to feel more connected and at peace with others who have served in the military, and it's much easier for civilians to go about our lives like we're not a nation at war. But that's not OK anymore. We must close the gap and create fluid lines of communication and association.
It's time to begin the dialogue and look our warriors in the face for more than a brief "thank you." It's not enough. For American civilians who say we "support our troops," it's inexcusable to be so distant and uneducated with regard to the experience they have returning home. Did you know that they assume we think they're used up? Damaged goods? As my friend Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) said, if a 20-year-old is able to protect the lives of the troops in his unit, you can bet he can manage a sales staff in Texas. Yet the unemployment rate for veterans is around 10 percent.
We need to do better than muster up a guilty "Hey, thanks for your service." We need to get down and dirty in these issues and come together as Americans to make sure that what happened with our Vietnam veterans never happens again.
Is the jury still out on whether it's fair to send one person on a tour to Iraq or Afghanistan multiple times while another person does not feel the slightest impact of war in all the years we've had troops abroad? I don't think so. I propose a reverse draft. Instead of drafting civilians to go to war, how about we draft them to get involved with our warriors in some way, shape or form -- regardless of political beliefs -- upon their return home?
Let's put each and every male and female civilian on a list so that when their 18th birthday comes, they will be drafted to be paired up for a full year with a veteran who is first returning home. The civilian's task will be to reintegrate the soldier into modern life, shoot the shit, talk about whatever the veteran has on his or her mind and do fun activities together. Veterans have described to me an uncanny feeling of being plucked out of their lives during deployment -- like a virtual time-freeze. They come back and friends are married, babies are born and degrees have been earned, yet they didn't attend the weddings, baby showers or graduation parties -- they are totally and completely disconnected. It's as if time stood still.
And us civilians? We hear about war through various media outlets and politicians, but never -- if we're not part of a military family -- directly from those who served and saw the day to day of what it means to be a nation at war. The draft will give civilians the opportunity to understand the reality of what is going on, create a personal bond, and educate themselves so that they can vote accordingly when deciding the future of our country.
A reverse draft will forcibly close the gap between civilians ignoring the fact that we're at war and remaining ignorant of what it means to be, while allowing our veterans the opportunity to feel a bond with the civilian world again and stop feeling so misunderstood and shunned.
Try me, I say. Tell me your stories -- let's laugh, cry, and create a bond between two worlds that have been kept apart historically. We can no longer ignore our veterans and let them do the hard work while we sit idly by. We want to pretend that veterans don't exist because it allows us to believe that we didn't put them in harm's way, just like we want to ignore the fact that the tasty piece of flesh on our plates likely came from an abused, factory-farm animal. We just don't think about it. We put it out of our minds. And most of the time it works.
This Veterans Day, please say more than "thank you." Think about how you can involve yourself in the process of veteran reintegration -- leave your thoughts below, and let's see what we can create together.