11/10/2014 02:27 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

How Assumptions and Fears Prevent Us From Serving Those Who Serve

Veterans Day is a national holiday that we celebrate on Nov. 11. As is the case every year, there will be local events and parades in communities across the country to recognize the sacrifice and service of our veterans. In addition, this year there will be an impressive star-studded concert on the National Mall here in Washington, D.C. I am very proud that our organization, Give an Hour, is being recognized as an "outstanding organization supporting veterans and military families" by the producers of the Concert for Valor. I am also troubled by the fact that as a nation we continue to struggle with how best to recognize, engage, and support those who serve and their families.

Thankfully, our society does genuinely seem to value military service. We no longer blame the soldier, sailor, airman, or marine for the policies of our government. We also genuinely seem to want to help those who fought during the past 13 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Millions of dollars have been donated by individuals, corporations, and foundations to thousands of organizations that sprang up to meet the needs of those in our military and veteran community.

In addition, progress has clearly been made with respect to improved collaboration and coordination between government and nonprofit organizations and across government agencies and departments as a result of the wars. Initiatives like Joining Forces -- the First Lady and Dr. Biden's effort to encourage coordinated support at the local and national level -- have certainly helped to keep public attention on the issues affecting military families. And yet, despite institutional and organizational progress to identify needs and deliver assistance, we continue to struggle to find ways to effectively recognize and support those who volunteer to protect and defend us.

This may seem confusing given the frequent public expressions of support designed to show our appreciation for those who serve. But it's not clear that these gestures are having the intended effect of easing the transition for our military families to civilian life. Some veterans appreciate standing ovations at ball games and discounts for services and travel. Some appreciate it when a civilian thanks them for their service. But others find the discounts unnecessary and the words of appreciation hollow. Some veterans like to be called heroes; others cringe in response to the term. Many veterans appreciate the pledges companies have made to hire veterans; but reports continue to surface regarding beliefs held by some executives and managers who assume that instability or mental health concerns follow veterans into the work force. And speaking of mental health, some veterans and military families welcome frank discussions about the need for additional services and the struggles they face, whereas other veterans worry that discussing mental health needs will cause civilians to pity -- or, worse, fear -- those who wear the uniform.

Culturally we seem stuck. We want to support our veterans but we can't quite wrap our arms around who they are and what they need or want from us. Perhaps we are struggling because our assumptions and fears are getting in our way.

Not all veterans or military family members are alike. This may seem self-evident, but humans like to categorize things -- including people -- so that we know what to expect and how to navigate. We don't really like differences because differences are challenging and can make us uncomfortable. But individual veterans are as different as individuals within any subgroup of a society. Of course they have some shared experiences, but assuming that every veteran's experience is the same prevents us from seeing any of them accurately.

Some of my dear friends who happen to be veterans want very much to retain their identity as a veteran. They are very proud of their service, they treasure their military experience, and they gladly identify themselves by branch, by conflict, by unit. And they give me grief that I am not a veteran, though I have some credibility with them because my father fought in WWII and so I sort of get it. Some of these friends will openly admit that they really don't want to melt into the pot with the rest of the civilians. They prefer to maintain their sense of separateness -- they just want access to opportunities and services so they can get on with their lives.

I have other friends who, while proud of their service, are more interested in assimilating into the civilian world. They see their military experience as one chapter in their lives but do not define themselves primarily as veterans. They are just as passionate about their political perspective or their hobbies. They don't judge me as lacking because I am a civilian, and they don't typically self-identify as veterans. For them, their veteran status is more of a private matter -- and their time in the military, a private experience.

If we could get a little better at recognizing that we all lean toward stereotyping and try to keep an open mind as we encounter and engage one another, that would really help on both sides of the veteran equation. It should go without saying that my military and veteran friends sometimes carry around unhelpful stereotypes about us civilians.

We seem most divided, and confused, however, regarding the issue of mental health within our veteran and military community. Some of us -- civilians and veterans -- are uncomfortable with information indicating that some of our military personnel, some of our veterans, and some of their family members are contending with significant mental health issues as they continue to serve our country or as they attempt to transition to civilian life. Some argue that the numbers regarding post-traumatic stress among combat veterans are inflated. Some suggest that whatever mental health issues are present in the military or veteran population were likely brought into the community as pre-existing conditions. They doubt that military or combat experience creates psychological suffering. And some look at the suicide data within the active duty, guard, and reserves and puzzle over what it means that a third of those in the military who committed suicide never deployed.

We are complex creatures with respect to our mental health. And service members, veterans, and military family members are no different than civilians in this regard. We shouldn't be surprised that a significant number of veterans and military family members struggle with mental health issues. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 1 in 5 adults in America --regardless of military experience--has a diagnosable mental health condition. We also know that stressful circumstances put people (including service members, veterans, and their families) at greater risk for the development of psychological challenges. Would any of us argue that military service is not stressful?

We all move through life with tendencies and predispositions that may result in the development of symptoms or challenges at some point in our lives. Mental health is part of the human condition. We cannot avoid it. Sometimes these symptoms or challenges are mild; other times they create significant distress and dysfunction. Fortunately, there are things we can do to help ourselves and others heal, recover, and cope. And perhaps most important, just because someone -- a veteran, a military family member, or a civilian -- is struggling with a mental health issue or condition doesn't mean that he or she is broken or permanently impaired. Even though 1 in 5 of us have some type of significant psychological condition that affects our daily functioning, we still perform our jobs, raise our kids, and lead our lives. And what is really amazing and wonderful is that some of us who have healed from trauma or suffering develop an increased capacity for compassion and empathy as a result of our journey through the pain.

So on this Veterans Day, perhaps we can try to drop our assumptions -- about veterans, military families, and mental health -- and try to get to know the service members, veterans, or families who are before us, these amazing individuals who choose to serve our nation and us. Perhaps we can try to understand an individual or family's unique experience and learn something, offer something, or share something.