I am dealing with two contradictory feelings: On the one hand I am excitedly getting ready, with my wife and kids to attend in a couple of weeks the graduation ceremony of my older son, 19, who is becoming a United States Marine.
On the other hand I cannot stop thinking of the hundreds of thousands of veterans in our country who are homeless, unemployed, and dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues, disabilities and the highest rates of suicide in our history.
General Douglas MacArthur once remarked: "I have just returned from visiting the Marines at the front, and there is not a finer fighting organization in the world!"
So, why would so many of these brave men and women in uniform, from all military branches, who confront and endure the most unimaginable hardships in the battlefield and perform at levels few humans can achieve, come home to face despair, depression, unemployment, and debilitating disorders that eat away their confidence, their hope, and their lives?
Consider these numbers about our post-9/11 veterans:
- Approximately 40 percent have a mental health disorder or related behavioral problem.
- 7 to 23 of veterans have problems with alcohol, 11.5 percent use illegal drugs, and prescription drug abuse doubled from 2002 to 2005 and tripled between 2005 and 2008.
- 1 in 4 (25 percent) have a service-connected disability, for a total of 633,000 veterans.
- Suicide rates are double the rate of the general population. One veteran kills himself/herself per day.
- About 250,000 veterans (12.1 percent) are unemployed, and the unemployment rate climbs to 29.1 percent for males 18-24 years of age.
- Of the 2.4 million veterans that have come back since 2001, 17 percent are wounded.
- Of the wounded or with disabilities, 60,000 are unemployed.
And there are more than 67,000 homeless veterans (with the numbers among men decreasing but increasing among women).
Why? What is going on?
It is not that society does not support our military, or that we don't value them. Quite the contrary, our men and women in uniform have seldom been so highly regarded, supported, and valued by our communities, our government, our businesses, and our families.
Corporations are going out of their way to mentor veterans, train them, and hire them. The Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs and other federal and state agencies have invested not just millions but billions fighting homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse, mental disorders, disabilities, and investing in suicide prevention, employment training programs and the like.
Yet the situation for veterans is still dire. And 1 million more veterans will return to our society in the next five years.
Brigadier General Lori Reynolds may offer a clue to the problem when she states that how far a military man or woman goes in life "will be limited only by his or her own needs and desires." And she is right.
But, here is the question: Could it be that upon their return from service, we have been focusing on our veterans' needs (i.e., training, services, job) but not on their desires, their dreams?
Desire is very different from need. Desire is much more powerful. It ultimately relates to our dreams. What we ideally want to achieve. Who we want to be. Author John Eldredge states that for desire to become a reality, to be satisfied, "Such incredible devotion is required, such total focus of body, soul, and spirit."
This is the type of desire that those dedicated men and women exhibit when they join our armed forces. Nothing less would carry them through training and the hardships of deployment and the battlefield.
So, how could this desire be reignited upon their return? Could this type of desire be channeled toward life in civilian society? Employment? Family? Business? And yes, it takes a strong desire, and passion, to be a good father, a good mother, a loyal spouse. And focus and desire are needed to establish a business, to persevere through its ups and downs. Or to hold a job and thrive with it.
Many veterans I have spoken with have told me that they have a hard time transitioning into civilian society. They are not sure about what the best occupations are for themselves. One of them who had been in the army told me it had taken him years to understand what he wanted to pursue in civilian life. And even more time to get trained and find an opportunity to make his dream a reality.
It is not easy to find out a person's desires. His or her dreams. Most of us don't even allow ourselves to dream. We just go with the flow, keep the job we were handed, push through and forget about the ideal situation. But if we really want to live, it is imperative that we find out our true passion, our deepest desire, our ultimate dream.
I cannot think of any other profession or occupation that would require more selflessness, virtue, idealism, honor, courage and personal strength than giving your life for your country, family, and freedom. General George Washington once said: "Happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected." That sense of moral duty that guides our military in times of war, will also guide them to happiness in civilian life.
So I would ask our veterans: What are your dreams, your desires?
May we all of us -- individuals, families, corporations, community, government, all -- help our veterans identify their true dreams and desires, pursue them, and make them a reality. They deserve no less.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.