At a town hall meeting last May Gen. Peter Chiarelli urged his Seattle audience to do two things that work best for returning veterans. Reach out to them instead of waiting for them to ask for help. And create central points of connection among programs in the region to give vets better access to the variety of services they need, as well as to build more powerful programs in concert than any agency could develop alone.
Not doing these things would have serious consequences, Chiarelli said. The emotional isolation and alienation from society that so many military service members feel when they return from war will persist, and will keep them from seeking the support they have earned and deserve.
A remark from a young veteran during the closing Q&A at the town hall pointed to the need for proactively drawing veterans and their families into a wrap-around community embrace.
"We are different,” he said simply. “We need people who are getting a method to deal with us. We are different."
His words came back to me in June when I read George Saunders’ fictional story “Home” in The New Yorker, which captures the disturbing estrangement from family, former self, and homeland that afflicts a returned marine professionally trained to kill.
During Mikey’s tour in Iraq he was disciplined for an unspecified act of violence. Back home now, he finds his mom dying of heart disease and being evicted from his childhood home. The mother of his children has divorced him and married his old high-school pal, who has moved into the house that once was Mikey’s and who won’t let him see his own kids when he visits unannounced early in the story. Everyone is walking on eggshells.
At the story’s climax Mikey, simmering with lonely rage and helplessness, pays a second visit to the home of his children. He wants to see them and confront his ex-wife. He finds the entire clan, including his mother, and his sister and her infant son and in-laws, gathered there, perhaps to discuss what can be done about him. They nervously eye his every move — and Mikey's sudden impulse is to mow them all down. His mind is boiling:
What are you going to stop me with? Your girth? Your good intentions? Your Target jeans?... Your belief that anything and everything can be fixed with talk, talk, endless yapping, hopeful talk?... My face got hot and I thought, Go, go, go….
Then suddenly something softened in me, maybe at the sight of Ma so weak, and I dropped my head and waded all docile into that crowd of know-nothings, thinking, O.K., O.K., you sent me, now bring me back. Find some way to bring me back, you fuckers, or you are the sorriest bunch of bastards the world has ever known.
We sent them, and we must find some way to bring our former military members back. The extreme situation in Saunders’ story brings home larger truths not only about our veterans (including the vast majority who ordinarily manage to be at least as kind, gentle, and balanced as civilians manage to be) but also about our own responsibility.
Have our “good intentions” and “hopeful talk” led to ways of bringing Washington state’s 650,000 veterans (including our “Mikeys”) home in all possible meanings of the word — emotionally, physically, educationally, socially, and financially? Are Seattle and the region making progress on Chiarelli’s two major recommendations — reaching out to veterans and linking services?
Veterans, who are famously stoic and reticent about their troubles, can be hard for civilians to reach out to with concern. And working against the grain of the general’s second recommendation is the American “can-do, take-charge” ethic, subtly encouraging us as individuals and groups to operate as autonomously as possible.
But there have been significant steps forward. The most important, according to many who work with vets in the region, is the Veterans and Human Services Levy, renewed by King County voters three months after Chiarelli’s talk.
For one thing, the levy has funded extensions of veterans services beyond urban Seattle, said Fred Steele, program manager of the King County Veterans Program (KCVP). Satellite services now operate in two hubs — Seattle and Renton — and in nine smaller cities throughout the county so that staff can personally contact more geographically scattered veterans whom there wasn't enough money to reach before. KCVP project director Joel Estey drives to senior and community centers around the county to give information about the satellites to veterans who can’t or don’t want to travel to Seattle or Tacoma for necessary services. Social workers go wherever vets or their families might be found — the Employment Security office in Redmond, say, or a food bank in Maple Valley — to spend time with them in person and talk about programs.
In addition, said Steele, a three-way collaboration between the VA, the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs (WDVA), and King County leads veterans to services they would otherwise not access, ranging from housing and mental health programs (especially for PTSD) to medical treatment, employment counseling, and education. With selected services in combinations that address their individual situations, veterans gradually move from a condition of great neediness to meeting their own needs through resources they've learned about — which sounds a lot like an ordinary civilian's life.
To assist veterans attending college, the WDVA program Veterans Conservation Corps (VetCorps) has placed members at 32 campuses across the state to serve veterans trying to navigate education and VA systems, said program manager Mark Fischer. VetCorps also fosters community for veterans on each campus by creating a place on campus where they can relax between classes and talk with others who have served in the military. “If you have a space at the college it makes all the difference,” said Fischer. “They can find a study buddy, talk about a tough day or a tough assignment.”
Even better than expanding outreach after veterans come home is improving the pre-discharge process, said Bill Block, project director of the Committee to End Homelessness. “In the past, people would just be handed a sheet of paper.” His impression is that the VA is doing a better job now of identifying conditions like PTSD in veterans before they leave the military, and pointing them toward relevant resources in their home communities — despite the fact that the VA likes operating on its own, and “local connecting … is not in their traditional DNA,” Block said.
On Veterans Day, remarked Bob Woodruff last summer at Seattle Town Hall, the way many Americans honor our vets is “throw them a parade, wave the flag, and then go shopping.” People and communities in our region can be proud of doing things differently, and not stopping with what Mikey dismissed as “good intentions” and “hopeful talk.”
But there's still a long way to go, especially for veterans across the U.S. with traumatic injuries, as a recent Huffington Post series showed. Another challenge is engaging personally with veterans as they rejoin the community. Most of us haven’t served in the military and don’t have service members in our immediate families. The existential gulf between ourselves and someone like Mikey, who has lived what Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of Darkness called “the horror,” can seem unbridgeable to both.
Still, if we can’t really know what military service members went through in a war, we can learn more about what it’s like for them to be back here.
We understand that a little better when we watch the KOMO-News story about programs for veterans in the region, “Help on the Homefront.” Two videos at the foot of the VetCorps webpage present young men at work in a local conservation program designed for veterans. Stories of returning vets throughout the nation are told in the HuffPost series and in videos posted at Homefront Heroes.
The knowledge can help close the emotional and experiential distance between ourselves and veterans as our paths cross in the workplace, at the grocery store, while volunteering, or on the bus.
conditions like PTSD in veterans before they leave the military and of pointing them toward relevant resources in their home communities despite the fact that the VA is used to doing things by themselves, and “local connecting … is not in their traditional DNA,” Block said.
To assist veterans attending college, the WDVA program Veterans Conservation Corps (VetCorps) has placed members at 32 campuses across the state to serve veterans trying to navigate education and VA systems, said Mark Fischer, program manager. VetCorps also fosters a community for veterans on each campus by creating a space where they can relax and talk with others who have served. “Veterans don’t self-identify, but they do recognize other veterans, and if there’s a place to meet they’ll do that,” said Fischer. “If you have a space at the college it makes all the difference. They can find a study buddy, talk about a tough day or a tough assignment.”
On Veterans Day, remarked Bob Woodruff last spring at Seattle Town Hall, the way many Americans honor our vets is “throw them a parade, wave the flag, and then go shopping.” People and communities in our state can be proud of not stopping with what Mikey called “good intentions” and “hopeful talk.”
More remains to be done, of course - and on a personal level, too, to weave veterans back into the social fabric with those of us who haven’t served in the military or who don’t have service members in our immediate families. It isn’t easy. The existential gulf between ourselves and a marine like Mikey, who has lived what Kurtz in Heart of Darkness called “the horror,” can seem unbridgeable. It can make a veteran seem like an Other in our eyes as well as a Brother (or Sister). Vets typically experience a similar double sense of folks back home.
But if we can’t really know what military service members went through in a war, we can learn more about what it’s like for them to be back home. The knowledge helps close the emotional and social distance between ourselves and veterans as our paths cross in the workplace, at the grocery store, while volunteering, or on the bus.