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.