The Disability Trap in Military Transition

Our perceptions about who we are as a military and veteran community is shaped by the 'disability' label.

Our perceptions about who we are as a military and veteran community is shaped by the 'disability' label.

'Disability' is more pernicious than a label used to describe a rating for benefits and services. It is trap that feeds the stereotypes that encumber the veteran community.

Let's do a little experiment. Imagine the best example of a warrior prepared for combat. I'm thinking special operations. Sunglasses. Helmet Mike. Body Armor. Perhaps a full beard not unlike the image of American Sniper Chris Kyle. Imagine yourself armored up on that important mission during your last deployment. Remember that sense of pride you felt for your unit, your country, and the men and women standing with you in formation. You were a part of something special. You were ready to take on the world, and the world was the underdog. Remember what it felt like when you came home? What words would you use to describe the indelible image of the modern warrior? Powerful . . . Intimidating . . . Hero?

Let's consider another, more professional setting. You're wearing your respective service uniform. For the army, that means the Class A uniform. You bear the accoutrements of military service on your chest - the rows of ribbons and badges earned through years of service to the nation. You glance at the service stripes on your right sleeve with a hint of pride. Neatly pressed. Standing tall. What words would you use to describe the image of a military professional? Confident . . . Decisive . . . Hero?

Now, let's step into a changing room. Let's remove the uniform and put on some regular clothes. Let's make the service member indistinguishable from any ordinary citizen. Instead of warrior, let's call him or her a veteran. More specifically, let's call him or her a combat veteran. How does your impression of that same person change? How do suppose the perceptions of society change in the time it takes to change outfits? What words does our society use to describe the combat veteran? Unstable . . . Lonely . . . Broken?

Why is there such a stark contrast between how society sees its warriors and its veterans? Why do we see ourselves so differently? Sometimes we feel inclined to point the finger at society. It seems easier to attribute the negative stereotypes to a civilian populace increasingly separated from the military experience, but if I'm being honest, it isn't their fault. It's ours. That's the bad news. Early in the transition process, we fall into a disability trap that handicaps our ability to reintegrate back into society and lead in life beyond the military. The good news is that we can do something about it.

Military Transition is the Turning Point

Be honest. Throughout your career, you avoided the unit surgeon. Sometimes against your better judgment, you stayed away from the doc. For most of your career, you probably didn't even know where to go for sick call. You ignored the pain for the sake of the mission. You played hurt. When you received your separation or retirement orders, you had to complete a medical evaluation. The purpose of that evaluation was to assess your baseline of wellness as you departed the military, and more importantly, to document any injuries or medical conditions as a consequence of your military service. The outcome of this assessment process was a rating for your level of qualified compensation and benefits. We measure this rating as a percentage of 'disability.' The higher the number, the greater the compensation, but we pay for that higher rating in other ways.

According to the Annual Benefits Report from the VA, 52 percent of post 9/11 veterans have a recognized ‘disability,’ and in 2017, there were more than 296,000 new disability recipients - almost twice the number of transitioning service members for FY 2017.

The 'disability' label identifies us as a disadvantaged segment of society before we even begin life as a veteran. It also shapes how society sees us as veterans. Fortune Magazine highlighted a report from the Society of Human Resources Management that suggests 1 in 3 employers consider mental health conditions an impediment for hiring veterans. The prevailing images of veterans in Hollywood and on television showcase former war heroes as damaged goods. The advent of more than 45,000 veteran non-profit organizations since 9/11 and the associated commercials and mailbox publications that showcase the wounded or highlight social issues like suicide suggests a community in desperate need of help. Absent a personal connection to the burden and sacrifice of military service, these characterizations anchor many of the prevailing misconceptions and stereotypes about the veteran population.

As veterans, we own these stereotypes. Admit it. When we had our separation or retirement physical, a part of us wanted to be classified as more broken. A higher 'disability' percentage means a greater entitlement. Once we stumble into that disability trap, we transition from qualities of personal sacrifice to victimhood and entitlement. Our selfless service becomes more selfish. This approach infects how we frame the second half of our lives. We see ourselves as "broken" and establish ourselves as "not enough." We settle for the job that is beneath our potential. Scarcity defines our state of being, and society simply responds in kind. We become addicted to the 10 percent discount that costs us the other 90 percent of our potential value.

If we don’t see ourselves as valuable assets to lead in life after the military, how will anyone not associated with our community appreciate our full potential?

Moving Past the Disability Trap

Some veterans' lives are forever altered as a result of their military service. Their tremendous sacrifice requires ongoing support and continuous care. Society bears that responsibility. Every veteran should be compensated for any injury or condition that impacts his or her long-term wellness, but the vast majority of veterans who carry a 'disability' rating don't consider themselves 'disabled.' As an alternative, I would suggest that we call it a service rating. After all, veterans and their families are eligible for healthcare and other benefits regardless of whether or not they suffered injuries as a result of military service. Furthermore, we don't yet know the long-term implications of cycling men and women through different states of war and peace in the current strategic environment. Why not employ proactive initiatives that promote sustained wellness for the duration of the veteran's life?

There is a difference between reverence and respect. Showing empathy and compassion is different from pity. If we want our predominantly non-veteran society to understand what it means to be a veteran, we have to stop hanging our heads. We have to defy the images of veterans on a knee and stand up. We have to lead. It's what we do. The military was a good fit for you so many years ago because you were part of the exceptional minority. We have to demonstrate that we are not defined by conditions like PTSD or moral injury, and showcase how the wisdom of our experience can further improve our communities and the nation as a whole.

As veterans, we have to assume the responsibility for changing the stereotypes. Consider the comparison of the warrior, military professional, and the veteran. We should hold the veteran in even higher regard than we do the warrior or military professional. If you didn't embody the attributes of the hero, you couldn't wear the uniform as long as you did in the first place. So, what would you have to believe about yourself to see the hero once you remove the uniform? It's time to climb out of the disability trap, and choose a different path. For us, the world is still the underdog, and society awaits our lead.