Securing the Rights for the Next Generation of Veterans

My youngest son, Everett, holds my hand during the Homecoming Ceremony from my final deployment to Afghanistan in 2011.

My youngest son, Everett, holds my hand during the Homecoming Ceremony from my final deployment to Afghanistan in 2011.

When I wore the uniform, no date on the calendar had more meaning for me than the Fourth of July. I was inspired by the courage of colonial settlers who risked everything for the hope of a better life. They founded a new nation on the belief that we were born to be free. Ordinary citizens became the first soldiers to fight for that belief. We celebrate them as heroes in the birth of our nation, and for the next 242 years, soldiers have deployed to far away lands and dangerous places to protect and defend that belief. On Independence Day, I felt connected to the generations of ordinary heroes throughout our history who also honored the shared commitment to protect and defend that same belief.

I may no longer wear the uniform, but I still feel that sense of connection to soldiers past and present. Lately, I started to worry more about the posterity of soldiers, veterans, and their families. Our military and veteran communities represent a shrinking segment of our population. We've come to entrust so much of our way of life to fewer volunteers to carry that burden. Service members honor and swear an oath to perform their duty, and perhaps it is time we declare a similar commitment to them. Perhaps it is time to establish a foundation of standards for life beyond the military and secure the rights for the next generation of veterans. Perhaps it is time to enact a Veteran Bill of Rights.

Why We Need A Veteran Bill of Rights

We've leveraged the benefit of similar declarations for implementing standards and policy guidance throughout our history. In 1791, the Founders included a Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution to guarantee personal freedoms and individual liberties. In 1973, the American Hospital Association introduced a Patient Bill of Rights to guarantee patient information, fair treatment, and autonomy over medical decisions. As we consider the challenge of military transition, the widening civil-military cultural gap, the lack of effectiveness and skyrocketing cost of existing veteran programs and services, and the long-term viability of an all-volunteer force, perhaps we require a similar declaration for how we reintegrate veterans back into society after military service.

Transition, the process of becoming a veteran, is the most vulnerable phase of the military lifecycle. The rate of suicide is highest in veterans during the first 12 months after separation from military service. Perhaps most of the social challenges confronting new veterans could be averted through a more comprehensive program of civilian reintegration. We spend 6-8 weeks initiating young men and women into military service, and after years immersed in the military culture, we expect veterans to embark upon a new life after a five-day transition program. Why are we surprised that so many veterans struggle in life beyond the military?

"Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it." – Sebastian Junger

The shrinking population of veterans suggests that more Americans are disconnected from the burdens and sacrifices of military service. As the civil-military cultural gap continues to widen, many veterans are having a hard time connecting back to the same society they committed to protect and defend. The lack of understanding that our civilian society has for our veterans is further exacerbated by the suicide contagion and the stereotype that combat veterans are broken. With a keen eye towards hiring expenditures and return on investment, employers and recruiters hedge the risk of hiring new veterans. As evidenced by the high rates of underemployment and first-year turnover of the veteran workforce, we fail to repurpose and optimize the potential of veterans entering civilian society.

Additionally, the lack of clear standards for veterans programs and policy guidance has proven to be both costly and ineffective. Since 2000, we’ve experienced a fourfold increase in spending for the VA despite the fact that the size of the veteran population diminished by about 25% over that same time period (26.4 million down to less than 20 million). Furthermore, of the 20 suicides a day detailed in the 2016 Veteran Suicide Report, only 6 of those veterans were even enrolled in VA healthcare. Even with the emergence of more than 45,000 non-profit organizations to support the veteran community, the unacceptably high rate veteran suicide has remained unchanged since 2011. We have no shortage of compassion or commitment for veterans and their families. We've exerted plenty of resources and effort. What we lack is focus. What we lack are results. 

The wellness and success of the veteran population provides the best incentive to encourage the long-term viability of an all-volunteer force. We are on the verge of a recruiting crisis. During the height of the Cold War, we fielded 2.1 million active duty service members from a population of approximately 235 million. Today, we continuously lower the bar for recruiting standards and increase the incentives just to field an active component of 1.3 million service members from a population of about 325 million people. Remember when we used to inspire the nation to "Be All That You Can Be?" Perhaps if we highlighted the opportunities and success of veterans during the second half of life, we would enlist the highest quality recruits to volunteer for service during the first half of life.

What We Might Include in the Veteran Bill of Rights

For an endeavor of this magnitude, the guiding principle should be simplicity. Less is more when establishing the basic standards and policy guidance concerning the wellness of the veteran community. Based on that premise, the following five elements represent a starting point for securing the rights of our veterans and their families:

The Whole Health and Wellness Standard. Perhaps the most important right our veterans have is to leave the military in a condition of optimal health and wellness. This standard would expand existing protocols that concentrate on physical wellness and mental health to include the spiritual and emotional domains for the veteran and their entire family. A personalized, proactive, veteran-centric approach would replace the bureaucratic, reactive process of completing a physical exam for assessing disability ratings and benefits through the federal government. 

We should commit to return our veterans back to society in a condition better than they were when these men and women first volunteered for military service

The Social and Cultural Reintegration Standard. Veterans and their families have a right to programs and services designed to bridge the widening civil-military cultural gap. Transition is more than updating a resume as part of a job placement program. Professional coachingmentor services, and other education and training programs would prepare service members to find the right job that aligns to their passion and purpose. Instead of approaching military separation as the end point, imagine the social and economic value of a program that repurposes the potential of veterans by reframing military service as the preparation for an even more empowering opportunity beyond the military.

The Professional Training and Accreditation Standard. If we have the most capable and professional military force in the world, then why do separating service members require additional training and certifications to prove their qualifications for employment in the civilian job market? Qualifications for professional military specialties - medicine, aviation, trade specialties, engineering, project management, etc. - should align to the highest standards of accreditation. Service members should not have to validate the quality of their education or professional training as a condition for employment in the same field as a civilian.

The Veteran Service and Community Network Standard. Veterans and their families have a right to be fully informed of public, private, and non-profit programs and services at the national, state, and local level based on their domicile after military service. This expands the centralized benefits briefing to include services from the state and local governments. It would also include credentialed services and programs provided by private entities or non-profit organizations at the national level or specific to a particular community.

The Fair and Equal Treatment Standard. The principles of respect, courtesy, and timeliness of service apply to the veteran and their entire family. This principle applies regardless of rank or period of service. Furthermore, veterans should be involved in the formulation of plans to utilize benefits and the decisions affecting their welfare.

We owe it to veterans, their families, and whole of our predominantly non-military society to establish standards for how we welcome and reintegrate these volunteers back into our communities upon completion of their military duties.

Enacting a Veteran Bill of Rights

What's the next step? How do we get started? Sure, you could wait for an advocacy group, government agency, or someone else to introduce a Veteran Bill of Rights as a policy initiative to help future veterans, but what does that do for you? Let me ask this another way: What is keeping you from making these commitments and setting new standards to create the life you want after the military?

This article might be a start point for policy discussion, but nothing is stopping you from using this as your personal starting point for life beyond the military. Create your own checklist for you and your family. Discuss and establish an actionable plan to optimize your health, bridge the civil-cultural gap, find the right job, and research the programs and services available in your community. Commit to open dialogue among your family members and hold each other accountable for the goals you set. When we go through the transition process, we spend a lot of time searching for the right example to follow. Maybe you can be that example. After all, leading is what we do best.

In the years after I became a veteran, I spend the Fourth of July reflecting on my last combat deployment. The army didn't make me go Afghanistan. I volunteered. I actually fought to return to Afghanistan to be a part of the surge of combat forces in 2010. I remember telling myself at the time that I was doing it so that my kids wouldn't have to do the difficult things that I had to do. Now, I realize that isn't possible. We will always need men and women to do difficult things in dangerous places to protect and defend our beliefs. If not my kids, then someone else's. For the next 242 years, our nation will continue to rely on the these men and women to bear these burdens and endure these sacrifices. We can't stop that, but we can do our part by securing these rights for our veterans and their families. In the spirit of Independence Day, it is time to do for them what they have spent the past 242 years doing for us.