By Aaron Saari
I keep myself deeply involved with the veteran community, but there’s one thing that bothers me at every veteran related event. I see it with the majority of veteran related non-profits and a vast majority of the American public.
It’s the assumption that every veteran is the same. That the smallest demographic you can divide us to is “veteran” and there’s no difference between any of us from there.
There are two key factors that subdivide veterans into three distinct groups:
Factor #1: Draftee vs Volunteer
Factor #2: Combat vs Non-Combat
The three groups that these two factors create are so viscerally different that I hope you'll never look at us as one homogenous group again.
1. The Vietnam (and older) veterans
These veterans were A) subject to the draft and B) saw prolonged combat. They could either get drafted or preempt it by volunteering and (hopefully) getting the role they desired. Then they saw some of the bloodiest combat that our living American population has ever seen.
2. The Cold War veterans (Post-Vietnam, Pre-9/11)
The Vietnam War ended in 1975 along with the U.S. Draft. So these veterans were A) volunteers and B) didn't see much combat. Yes, there were short conflicts that involved combat over this 30 year period, but they all pale in comparison to Vietnam/Korea and Iraq/Afghanistan.
3. The Post-9/11 Veterans
This is my generation of veterans. We were A) volunteers and B) saw as much as 15 years of combat with multiple deployments. Our wars were walks in the park compared to our older Vietnam brothers and sisters.
This is why the differentiation of the types of veterans matter: We're all different, but we get grouped together as if we all need (or even want) the same benefits. Yet, we differ in surprising ways.
1. Cold War Veterans, for the most part, had "corporate" jobs where they had to wear a uniform every day. They lived and worked in the safe bureaucracy of the military which looks a lot like the predictable bureaucracy of any other government branch.
It was obviously different from most other jobs but, compared to the other two groups of veterans, it was very, very different. And safe. Super safe. Yes, there were skirmishes, but these veterans weren’t enveloped in decade(s) long wars where they saw major combat littered with death and life-long wounds.
2. My generation of veterans volunteered and the Vietnam veterans didn't. Yet, we get grouped together when veteran groups lobby for veteran benefits.
Here's why this is important: The dictionary defines a "volunteer" as someone who freely offers to take part in an enterprise or undertake a task. Because I was part of an all volunteer Army, I truly feel like I'm owed nothing for that service. That's what volunteering is.
However, those Vietnam veterans who didn't volunteer, I believe we owe them a lot. To put your life on the line against your will is the polar opposite of being a volunteer. The only non-renewable resource that we have as individuals is our time, and taking someone's time is the ultimate debt that deserves to be repaid.
3. The vast majority of veterans don't need help, but the American public thinks we do because we all get grouped together.
There are a lot of surviving Vietnam veterans who could probably use some assistance. The support infrastructure wasn't as robust in the military as it is now, and our country treated these veterans terribly when they returned.
The Cold War Veterans, as a whole, are fine. There are outliers (because there are always outliers), but these veterans volunteered and didn't see combat. Some of these could have easily served in the military for 10-30 years without ever deploying.
The Post-9/11 Veterans (my generation) are a mixed bag. Some are scarred from seeing multiple deployments and the realities of what humans are capable of doing to other humans. But at the end of the day, we volunteered. And that has a deep effect on the way we feel about getting handouts from people and organization that want to help us. Volunteering is a personal donation of time, but the culture surrounding veterans demands that we get something more for giving that time freely. I've seen a lot of my generation of veterans struggle with that dichotomy and decide to simply distance themselves from the veteran community as a whole. Which, in my opinion, can be a pretty intelligent thing to do depending on your community of veterans.
So what do we do?
The first step in solving any problem is defining it, so now we must actively see the military veteran community as it truly is: a large group of individuals with different needs and viewpoints, not as 22 million identical people that all need your help.