Awhile back, a friend asked me a really good question. He wondered why, with all the thousands of organizations and resources at their disposal, some veterans still struggle with their transition to civilian life? With as much time as I spend thinking about veterans issues, I couldn't give him a good answer.
He was right to wonder. There are literally hundreds of thousands of organizations dedicated to veteran reintegration. Some help with writing resumes and prepping for interviews. Some offer free legal advice. Others build houses or make modifications to accommodate the physical wounds of war. There are groups that take veterans fishing or camping or hiking or climbing. Some pair veterans with mentors. Still others give them free tickets to sporting events. The sheer number of groups aiming to help veterans is staggering. Indeed, they are a testament to the enormous reservoir of goodwill that America has for her veterans.
The vast majority of these are worthy and noble endeavors, showing veterans their service is appreciated. And yet, far too many veterans struggle with the transition to civilian life. With all these organizations offering help, how can this be?
I tried to come up with a theory to explain the discrepancy. I re-examined my own painful experience coming home from Iraq, depressed and angry. I looked for answers among the scores of veterans I've counseled at the Denton County Jail and Equest Therapeutic Horsemanship. I re-read research papers and references from my time in the counseling program at the University of North Texas. I asked my friends about their own experiences coming home from the war. In the end, I couldn't come up with much of a theory.
But I did find a pattern.
In many cases, those veterans who successfully transition to civilian life do so because they've come to believe three things: I am not alone, I am competent, and I am needed. The organizations that help veterans accept these truths seem to make the biggest difference in helping them fully realize their potential as community assets... rather than ongoing casualties of war.
Allow me to introduce you to three such organizations.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). It can be a scary thing to be alone. This is never truer than when a warrior comes home and is separated from his or her military family. Veterans who no longer have that camaraderie and support can feel lost and disconnected from the civilian world. They may begin to withdraw from the people around them, frustrating family and friends who can't understand their emotional distance. Given the fact that a strong social support system is the most significant factor in determining stable emotional health, this is a recipe for disaster.
IAVA gives these warriors the support and fellowship of a new military family. They learn there are thousands of their brothers and sisters who have been there too and understand what they are going through. When I came home from Iraq, lost and alone, IAVA was there for me, sending a very clear message I desperately needed to hear:
You are not alone.
Equest Therapeutic Horsemanship. Combat scars the combatants. Warriors often return home feeling numb and confused as to why the world no longer seems safe or even makes sense anymore. The experience can leave the strongest among us feeling broken -- or worse.
If they hope to heal, these warriors must understand that they are not broken... they are still strong and still capable. That's where organizations like Equest come in. Through their "Hooves for Heroes" program, Equest has stepped up to fill the gap in services left by a dangerously overextended VA. They are doing what thousands of community non-profits are doing across the country -- helping veterans regain self-confidence and a sense of control over their lives.
But Equest is accomplishing this mission in a unique way -- by leveraging the powerful bond between horses and humans. Horses open the door to our hearts and show us we can have strong emotions without fear. This is very powerful for those emotionally disconnected from everyone and everything in their lives. It gives them the confidence to love -- and sets the stage for healing frayed relationships at home. A program like this helped heal mine.
In addition, veterans learn to tap into qualities that helped them survive in combat as they master new skills in a safe and welcoming environment. As they progress through the "Hooves for Heroes" program, they grow stronger and come to understand they are not defined by their trauma. They begin to see themselves as warriors again.
You are competent.
The Mission Continues. When I was overseas I never doubted for a second what was expected of me. I knew my responsibility as an officer and as a member of my team. I did my duty because my brothers-in-arms relied on me -- as I relied on them. That clarity of purpose became the foundation of my identity. But when I returned from Iraq, I lost that sense of purpose and along with it, much of myself. Again and again, I counsel veterans struggling with the same lack of purpose. Without it, they seem lost.
The Mission Continues challenges returning veterans to dedicate themselves to a new mission: service at home. Veterans commit themselves to six months of volunteer work in a local non-profit organization. Through their service, these men and women regain a sense of purpose and demonstrate to America they are not charities -- indeed, they are one of her greatest assets.
For those proud warriors who have spent years defending the country in time of war, The Mission Continues tells them something they need to hear:
We still need you.
You are not alone. You are competent. We still need you.
These are powerful messages. When veterans accept them, their focus shifts from simply surviving to living with purpose. For many, this is the key to a successful transition. Organizations like IAVA, Equest, and The Mission Continues understand this and are helping veterans to understand it too.
My friend asked a really good question. I can finally give him a really good answer.