Veterans Success, National Success

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A person’s ability to heal and fully recover after stressful and traumatic experiences is powerful, but also completely normal. There is no place in the United States where this is as evident as it is among our veteran and military service members. This is the message we should all hear on this Veterans Day.

Most of the discussion you hear in the nation about veteran’s health is focused on the struggles of a few. We read about veteran homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury, chronic pain and drug use, and the need for education and employment. But these very serious problems are prevalent in a small minority of the 25 million veterans alive today.

Occasionally, we learn about a success story – the veteran who is not only resilient, but who bounces forward from injury and war to excel beyond the average. Such is the case of Colonel Greg Gadson, US Army (Ret.) who was a recently a special guest at Samueli Institute’s Pain Breakthrough Collaborative Learning Network meeting. Col. Gadson, who was a college all-star football player before joining the military, lost both his legs above the knee and partial use of his right arm in Iraq. As he said at the meeting, “When something like this happens, your old plans and dreams disappear—no life plan for when something like this happens.” His new approach to reality is to, “…stay present and do the best I can.” 

Col. Gadson did better than that. He came back to become a post commander, film and television actor, and veterans advocate. He is a national leader and, as stated by former Army Surgeon General Eric Schoomaker at the meeting is a, “Great force in healing.” Col. Gadson is now nationally recognized as a heroic role model for our human capacity to excel and thrive in the face of major life trauma.

All wars have their heroes who are resilient beyond the norm. And we so often forget that this involves their families too. A hero from a the Viet Nam era is former Secretary of Veterans Affairs, General Eric Shinseki, US Army (Ret.). Wounded twice and requiring a long recovery, Gen. Shinseki and his wife, Patty Shinseki continue to serve our country at the highest levels. They have dedicated their lives to help veterans, active duty service members and military families, always remembering that it is the everyday service member who keeps us free. Listen to some of their story in my recent interview with Mrs. Shinseki on Samueli Institute’s podcast “On Human Flourishing.” 

But the reality is that the vast majority of veterans are neither homeless nor heroes. They are average Joes and Janes who served their country and returned to lead successful and productive lives after their service. Veterans, who employ the values of discipline, personal sacrifice, and teamwork, as well as skills learned during military service, improve the moral and functional character of our nation. Veterans who successfully return to their communities and the civilian workforce contribute to our national success every day in ways that are mostly invisible and unrecognized. As a nation, we need to not only acknowledge this, but make a concerted effort to fulfill the social contract we made with them when they went to war on our behalf. We need to assure that they all are successful on their return. 

My own family demonstrates this point. For four generations my family has sent men to the military who returned and were these unsung average Joes in civilian life too.    

My father was an example of that.  As a 30 year, three-war Army Chaplain he not only defended the country numerous times, he continued to apply the service and discipline he learned in the service in his post-retirement life. After the wars he quietly went on to find and help alleviate suffering. He was a hospital chaplain when the wars ended and then a prison chaplain in California for a decade. He then went on to serve the rural poor, the homeless in San Diego and people who worked the “underside” in downtown Las Vegas. This was not just resilience after war; it was unspoken service, which is the backbone of our great nation.

 

What this and my own career in the military taught me is that these average Joes and Janes who serve in our military continue to serve our country when they return to civilian life. We need to continue to serve them. The future of our nation depends upon that.