Veteran Service Organizations and the Civil/Military Divide

Listening to a favorite podcast, After Action with Max & Paul, I was reminded of some aspects of transition to civilian life that need to be addressed. The swamp that is known as traditional veteran service organizations. By that I mean things like the American Legion, VFW, and AMVETS. These groups that have great histories but in function today are not much more than subsidized bars at local levels. Before I take a bunch of flak I do know that there are some good local posts of the old guard VSOs. More and more though I hear of experiences that mirror my own with these groups. Archaic structure, abandonment of the veteran service responsibilities, reluctance to change while bemoaning the lack of young members, enlarging the civil/military divide instead of bridging it, and devolving into nothing more than a place to get drunk on the cheap.

As I wrote in my post On Transitions the military does a piss poor job of preparing us for that transition back to civilian life. In the most recent episode of After Action the hosts, two former Marines, talk about the week of classes they had to go to. For me it was just a single day of required briefings with a bunch of optional classes (I signed up for a few and they were a huge disappointment). I do not know if the Army has changed ACAP since 2011, but I’m willing to bet no meaningful changes have been made.

So out you go back into the world with not much support for finding your way as a civilian again. It’s hard to really grasp the enormity of this problem, even if you have gone through it. Your entire professional life changes, your social life is reduced to who you keep in contact with through Facebook, your very identity needs to be remade. A natural place for a vet to turn to for help in this struggle is the traditional veteran service organizations. At least you’d think.

My wife and I both joined our local American Legion post after moving to WNY. We were hopeful that we’d find a group of people with similar experiences who could help guide us in our transition. It seemed like a place to find something familiar while not getting stuck in an unhealthy nostalgia. These VSOs are, after all, supposed to support veterans with their unique challenges. It seemed to us a natural place to start as we built a new life.

We were so utterly disappointed. While being welcomed as new members who were both vets, even made officers of the post, it became clear from the start that our new ideas weren’t actually wanted. The existing membership, which included the Women’s Auxiliary, didn’t seem to be able to wrap their heads around a woman being a vet and not just a spouse who wanted to help by cooking at events. We tried to understand that it was something new for the local post, but the condescending treatment we both faced was abhorrent.

We ended this experiment after a few months, completely disillusioned with a VSO that we had held in such high regard. We felt let down and in a way betrayed. What we needed was a place to ease us into our new lives, to build a local social network, to find something meaningful that connected us to our previous lives while still moving forward. All we found was a bar full of old people who looked at us like aliens and didn’t understand why we weren’t happy just slurping 75 cent beer and talking about how great we were for having served. What’s the point of public service if you can’t build your ego around it and look down on others who didn’t serve, right?

That’s my personal experience with the Legion. As I said earlier I’ve noticed a lot more younger vets expressing similar sentiments. Mulling that over I started to see how these VSOs contribute to the widening civil/military divide. These groups used to provide a way for vets to integrate into their communities, to serve in a private capacity, and to have that cultural exchange between vets and non-vets. Now they reinforce the divide by abdicating civic responsibilities in their local communities and providing a dark hole for vets to crawl into.

This furthers the isolation that I’ve written about. Instead of empowering newly separated vets to integrate into their new communities these VSOs wrap a blanket of platitudes around the vet. They prop up the prejudices and reinforce the ideas of non-vets being lesser citizens, which erodes our democracy. Rather than building up vets to have successful transitions the VSOs perpetuate the image of the poor, damaged, and unappreciated vet. When you need to have help bridging your own gap into civilian life the VSOs provide a counterproductive security bubble. Oh and don’t forget to pay your dues and come to the bar a few times a week, they need the money to keep operating and to support the national offices in their veteran advocacy.

What you end up with is an abusive co-dependent relationship. The national offices do a fairly good job of veteran advocacy, although they do it in a way that shows the stark generational divide. When Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was being debated the traditional VSOs were about the only ones standing in opposition to repeal. So while they want the young members, they feel no obligation to represent young vets. I don’t want to take away from the good things done at a national level, they aren’t the only ones fighting that fight though. I’d argue that more important is the impact these VSOs could play at local levels. This is where the major disconnect is, the lack of accountability and uniformity of experience. Some local posts certainly don’t fit the picture I painted above, but more and more do. America needs these local posts to help bridge the civil/military gap and to help veterans find success in their transitions.

This isn’t a post to blast VSOs and vent anger. I want to draw attention to this problem in hopes that there will be change as more younger vets take over the leadership roles. I’m not holding my breath though. Baby Boomers holding on to power is an issue in nearly every walk of American life…. looking at you Congress. I would like more people to recognize this void and the dangers it poses. I hope more people start to see the civil/military divide for the serious threat to democracy that it is. I hope you read this and learn from it.

Most of all I hope you’re inspired to do something. A million small acts will aggregate into large impacts. Go talk to someone new. Read something that you normally wouldn’t read. Share the good ideas you find with others. Break bread with your neighbors. These small acts are how we all make America great.

Until we meet again.

Isolation

This is the last of a three post series on friendship. While not the end of my writing on this subject, this marks the conclusion of what I’ve built up in my previous two posts. Today we strike the hot flames of comradeship into cold steel of isolation and doubt. Exposing myself emotionally is not easy. I have a large T&T on hand for an assist, but there’s no way around how terrified I am as I write.

To write this I need to dive into some darker places that I’ve work hard to crawl out of. Introspection is healthy – that doesn’t change the fact that it’s uncomfortable to do, much less share in such a way. I am encouraged by the fact that my last post seemed to be my most well received. So maybe you all really are interested in this.

OK, no more stalling. Here we go.

June 2011, I begin terminal leave and we move to western New York. Intending to settle down near Buffalo we are flush with confidence. We know that there will be an opportunity for me. We know that while it’s not a cake walk we will be able to find a suitable life and be near family and friends. We just know that everything is looking up.

Weeks go by with no job, barely any interviews. We are in a bind because our household goods will only be held for 90 days. Living with my parents for a short period while we get working and find a home stretches longer than we expected. The first chip. Pressing up close to that 90 day mark and still without work our best option seemed to be to rent the house next-door to my parents. I begin living out ‘Everyone Loves Raymond’.

Could be worse though. I had no idea just how much.

Living in the same town I grew up in again. The same town I worked so hard to get out of. The same town I hated with every fiber of my being by the time I was 18. Another chip.

There are lots of relatives nearby and even some people I went to high school with that I got along with are still around. I never see them though. Everyone is busy with their own lives. When we do get out I feel alone. There are only a few bars in town, and not much else to do besides work on liver cancer. Occasionally I’ll see someone to shoot the shit with but it always ends in frustration. I really don’t have many good things to talk about. Just another one of the failures in town struggling to get by.

Drinking at home or at the bar feels about the same. Just one is easier on the wallet. Either way I’m trapped in my head. Obsessing over all the things going wrong. Anxiety builds over homework, my dickhead bosses at the bank, the pointlessness of my work, the feelings of going nowhere but deeper in debt.

And all of my friends are several states away. Anyone I would really want to spend time with. Anyone who could really help me pull myself together is so far away.

Deeper and deeper down that rabbit hole. Chip after chip after chip to my pride. Confidence gone, I’m wracked in self doubt over every decision I’ve made. Some great leader you turned out to be. Just another schmuck who couldn’t hack it as a civilian.

And now nobody wants anything to do with you.

One night in that first year out I had a complete break down. Stress overcame me. My body shook from frayed nerves and I began to bawl. I had to bury my head in a pillow as I screamed as loud as I could. Everything was just too much. I had completely failed and ruined not just my life but my wife’s too. It was the sobbing of a man completely broken. After this passed and I went back downstairs I found my brother had stopped over. We awkwardly ignored my breakdown but later that night I got a phone call from my  mom asking if I was alright. Awesome.

That first year sucked. But at the end of it we bought our first house, the house on the OTHER side of my parents. It seemed to make sense as it cost less to own than to rent and our lease was ending anyway. The house looked a bit trashed from a couple years of not enough maintenance, but nothing worse than cosmetic. Wrong again. Within a couple months of moving in the insurance company notified us that a new roof was required within 30 days or we would be dropped. Our savings had already been drained and we had no way of doing this.

Luckily I was able to convince the insurance company that putting a new roof on a house in NY in November was a bad idea and got an extension on our deadline. That emergency abated, others kept following. Detailing them here would be mundane, so let’s just say something similar to the roof fiasco seemed to happen about every few months for the next few years. Pro tip: never buy a house built in the 19th Century.

The point is that these stressors kept building up. One hole in the ship got patched and two more sprung. These things added on to my social isolation. I couldn’t connect with anyone in town. I had a few friends at work, but they all lived an hour away from me so I didn’t see them outside of the office and never really got too close. School was like being on an educational assembly line. Nobody was there to make friends and I certainly didn’t find much common ground with anyone.

That’s not true. In the final few weeks I found that most people shared my hatred for a classmate who was the son of a local real estate ‘magnate’ (dude, it’s Buffalo). In the last few weeks there was an opportunity to catch a drink with some classmates (during lunch) and I wish it had happened earlier.

Floating through life. Anxiety dialed up to 11. Pulling financial gymnastics to stay afloat. Grad school being an all or nothing, cannot fail endeavor – which was great when I did fail Management Science and had to retake it.

All of this compounded and distracted me from just how badly my social isolation was harming me.

Years went by and I only became more isolated and distant. I became an awful person to be around, which again compounded the isolation. I hated everyone. I resented the world for abandoning me. I was humiliated for falling so far from the prestige and financial security of being an Army officer.

At the core of it all though I was just afraid. I was afraid that I peaked at 23, that everything was bound to be worse for the rest of my life. That I wasn’t living up to my own standards and never really was anything of consequence. Nobody seemed to care about what I had done in the Army, nor were they impressed. I vacillated between hating everyone else and hating myself. Life became pointless, just something to tolerate until death’s merciful release. Why wouldn’t it just hurry up already?

I was in deep. Angry at the world and ready to lash out at anyone. Sometimes I did. And I hated myself more and more for it. For being weak, for lacking resilience, for not being the man I used to be.

This is where the therapy became necessary. I hadn’t really grasped what was going on, but I recognized there was a real problem, even if I couldn’t see its depths.

I had lost my tribe. I had no sense of community or belonging. My strongest identifiers were in my past, never to be again. Slowly I began to understand this all. Reading Tribe by Sebastian Junger opened my eyes a good deal.

(Oh that was a big swig of gin)

Lacking my tribe I was a listless person. The problem is, I’m not into hanging out at the Legion and talking about how great all us heroes are. I tried getting involved with my local American Legion right after moving back. It was a total crash and burn.

Being able to identify the problem was a major breakthrough for me though. Slowly things started to dawn on ol’ Mongo and over the span of a couple years I found my way to Stoicism.

I’d like to tell you “And that’s where my life completely changed!” That would be a lie. Major change in mentality, sure. Stoic teachings have helped me to reframe my problems, but it’s still a gradual process of making real changes. And I still have some lingering issues dealing with isolation. I’ve made some friends in the past couple years. Even went to a Bills game socially….. in mid-December! I also reconnected with friends that I had not seen for years. All these things happened in the last three months, just to give some frame of reference.

(More gin was needed at this point)

Really, I just nicked the surface of these struggles (it’s a blog post not a full chapter). Anger and alcohol abuse left me incapable of recognizing myself. I lost my way. With help I started clawing back. Integrating Stoic teaching and practices have helped me continue making progress. In 2017 I began reading and learning. In 2018 I’ve begun more actively journaling (including this blog), making time for morning meditations and evening reflections, putting more structure to my days and holding myself accountable.

That still leaves me with no more friends or social connection. But now I am focused on what I can control and maintaining right action rather than feeling like a victim and resenting the human race. In my control – staying more connected with the people who are important to me. Disconnecting from trivial things like social media. Taking time to write. Recognizing the beauty around me and how fortunate I am to live where I live. My hometown may not have much, but we live 500 meters from Lake Erie. The sunsets are amazing, and I can take my dogs to the beach whenever I want.

Finding every single joy in life, everything to be grateful for, is what maintains me now. It’s a battle of light and dark. As much as I’d love to Force Choke mofos every single day it’s so much better focusing on the light.

I’m a work in progress (there’s always WIP). It’s been a much better ride lately. I’m grateful you’re reading this and for anyone who has taken part or will take part in this literary adventure.

Until we meet again.

On transitions

So glad you’re back. I’ve been reading a good bit and jotting down some thoughts since my last post. Today I intend to write a literal transition piece to link my previous post and the post to follow this one. One of the things I read that helped form this idea was a blog post by Marisa Mohi titled Transitions Are Hard.

Admittedly I do not read many other blogs. I prefer a book or magazine in my hands and right now as I write there is a stack of 14 books about a foot away from me that I am working through. Marisa was a great help for me kicking this effort off and this particular post of her’s hit home (she’s also kind enough to leave frequent comments here). It’s really a great piece that ties in with some themes that I am tackling here so I thought I’d use it as a jumping off point. Please take a few minutes to read Marisa’s post before continuing here.

The last line is absolutely perfect – “Have you ever jumped out of the trunk of a moving car?” I loved this for three reasons.

  1. It’s the perfect way to describe the transition from active duty back to civilian life. Something that is central to this blog’s theme.
  2. It references Bevis and Butthead Do America, a true cinematic masterpiece.
  3. I’ve jumped out of a moving car…. twice…. within a 1/4 mile stretch. (Tequila)

Let’s chat about that Bevis and Butthead clip. It’s a great (unintended) metaphor for transitioning. Starting with a jacking off joke and the taunting to stop being a pussy, to thinking all you need to do is run really fast to keep up with the fast moving road, and being pushed out by someone who doesn’t know what the hell they’re talking about. We’ll take those things one at a time.

In leading up to leaving active duty peers will make lots of stupid jokes to play down the seriousness and difficulty of the task that lays ahead. We are told time and time again that since we performed complicated tasks in the most high stress environment imaginable for long periods of time, sometimes leading others in the process, that we can do anything. Don’t even question your abilities, it’s laughable to think that you can’t do anything that a civilian can do. You’ve done way more than your civilian counterparts, AND they’re pussies. Just be confident and you’ll have people falling over themselves to hire you, you hero you.

And politicians wonder why vets have such difficulties making it in civilian life.

Next up – in addition to overestimating your own value and abilities we are also guilty of underestimating how hard job searching is. I’m not talking about skimming online job boards. I mean building a professional network, selecting companies or industries that suit you, finding locations you want to live in, and finding a job that will hopefully provide a comparable standard of living to what you had in the military. A great book on this (that I wish I had in 2009) is CONUS Battle Drills. A necessary read for people about to make the transition and a neat insight for civilians who want to read something that dives into the details of successful military transitions. This whole idea of just running really fast, to just hustle, sets many vets up for failure. It glosses over the challenges of professional life transitions and completely ignores the personal life transition. In my opinion, the challenges to your personal life in this military-to-civilian transition is the tougher of the two. More to follow.

Lastly, getting the motivational push from a dope who is as full of shit as my colon. This is skewed by my own experience, but I’d wager it’s pretty common. In 2010 the Army required all personnel separating or retiring to go through ACAP (Army Career and Alumni Program). A great political talking point is that military personnel need a ‘reverse bootcamp’ to prepare them for civilian life. Well, ACAP has been around a long time. The program exists, it just sucks. There are two required briefings, one on job searching skills and another about VA benefits, that take up one full duty day combined. That’s what all transitioning personnel get without question, ONE day of briefings. There are plenty of other classes offered, usually people sign up for them to get out of whatever shit detail their unit is pushing onto the guys getting out. For anyone who really gives a damn about the class the product is pretty lame and not worth the time. What it really comes down to is that in many cases the person teaching the transitioning personnel about civilian life, job searching, networking, etc. is likely a retired NCO who got out of the military and landed in a nice Federal job teaching these classes. They regurgitate material that was taught them. Rarely is there a person with real experiences and qualifications to teach these classes. It’s literally the dumb leading the blind. Butthead is pushing our collective Bevis out of the trunk while Bevis is still pondering his decision.

So that’s how I ended up unemployed for five months after my separation date, finally taking a job with M&T Bank in its collections department (Customer Asset Management – talk about a churched up name). Fortunately I had built up some G.I. Bill benefits and began a MBA program a few months earlier. School was my main focus but there were still bills to be paid. So I was a full time grad student, a MBA candidate with a BA in history and never a business class taken before, while working full time and commuting over an hour each way 5 days a week with class on Friday nights and Saturdays. Not exactly the image of a successful transition. Ironically, it was this same year that Bevis and Butthead began airing again. Wouldn’t you know it, there was an episode where our heroes stumble into a call center and start taking calls. It was exactly like my experience working for M&T, and I made sure to say “I understand your frustrations” as much as possible. Even got some of my co-workers in on the joke.

Even more difficult than the professional challenges was trying to find a fulfilling personal life again. I had not realized just how much the Army had provided the community that filled my life. There were always a few good friends around, there was a social circle that provided the support needed when life got stressful. There were people with shared experiences to bond with and to value. There were people who understood your troubles, there were mentors, there was a personal nexus that formed your life on duty and off duty. This was something that I just did not recognize, let alone value. It’s something I still miss and have not been able to replace. This is the lasting challenge for me right now. I love and cherish my family, but we all need friends and social interactions outside of the home as well. This is something that my wife has recognized and struggles with as well. Our lives were so dependent on the community that came with being in the Army but we failed to see that. It took many years for this fact to smack us upside the head. It’s still a challenge to work on, but knowing’s half the battle, right?

This is where the next post will pick up. At the urging of a friend, I am going to dive deeper into the social challenges faced in transition, the difficulty in finding friendship and the emotional toll that takes.

My last thought on transition for today. Recently I finished Chris Bohjalian’s Trans-Sister Radio. Gender dysphoria and gender transition has long interested me. The lead signer of Against Me! (one of my favorite bands) is a trans woman and her last few albums laid bare all the pain, joy, and raw emotions of her struggles with gender dysphoria and transition. This book was fantastic, I’d recommend it for anyone with a similar interest (it is a novel). What strikes home for me is the unique challenges facing the trans community. Combining that with Marisa’s post about semester transitions it is clear that difficult transitions are something that all people go through. It’s not just a vet problem, it’s a problem of all people. We all face a different struggle, but we can find common ground here and we should. Rather than the basic vet who wants to turn every issue into a vet-centric issue, the veteran community should see this common ground as a way to talk about our struggles, exercise some empathy, check our egos, and talk to civilians about what similar challenges they’ve faced and how they overcame. Let’s use our unique transitions in life to bridge the civil/military divide. We’ll be more successful, and we’ll be better Americans for it.

Until we meet again.