We need a new generation of veteran organizations to come to life for those who have served in each generational war America chooses or is forced to fight.
I have a fairly full inbox from folks writing to me in response to my "In His Own Blood" and "Soldiers Are Not Victims" posts. A lot have been from men (and a few women, fair play) asking, "OK, I look out for the ones near me, but what else can I do?" And a significant few from two organizations, both of which I fully support, who give suggested solutions to the questions the first set of readers asked. But first, a little bit of background. Because, well, I am a historian and what is a historian without context? As I see it, this situation is not at all new. What we have, at the current moment, are not one, but two new veteran's organizations. And you might ask, "Well, why do we need any new veterans organizations? Do not we already have the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion?" Well, yes we do, but do you ever wonder why we already have those two, particular, and different organizations?
Well, so first let us look at the VFW, why do they exist? Certainly there were prior veterans organizations, reaching all the way back to the post-Revolutionary War "Society of Cincinnatus." Indeed, in the wake of the War of the Rebellion (some might know it as the "Civil War") there were two veterans organizations, one north, one south. The northern organization, known as the "Grand Army of the Republic," was very politically engaged and active throughout the 1870s, '80s, and into the '90s. So why was a new veteran group founded in 1899? Simply stated, there was a generational bias, and service bias one might suggest. Come the Spanish-American War of 1898, the first real war that Americans had fought overseas, there was no "room at the inn" for the veterans of that conflict among the 50-, 60-, and 70-year-olds of the GAR.
So what do you do? You form a new veterans organization, and just to make it "in your face," you make it explicitly only for those who have fought in "Foreign Wars." But that was 1899. In 1919 there was another generational gap. Sure, the VFW could have applied, but the veterans of WWI felt that they were (now) hidebound oldsters who had no concept of the trenches and the sacrifices, let alone the idea of a four million man Army. So they decided to create their own veteran's organization, organized exclusively around the men who had gone to sea and gone to France in WWI.
After WWII both organizations had membership drives that rivaled the most modern political machines, and in this, with 16,000,000 new potential members, they were largely successful. Following the main part of the Korean War at the end of '53, both made reduced efforts again, and again their numbers swelled. But then there was a gap, as any Vietnam veteran will tell you.
When Vietnam vets came home, in their ones and twos, over the years, over a decade, the reception was generally frosty. As one related to me, he was told, "We won our war, why haven't you won yours?" Thus started the inevitable, by the nature of human mortality, decline of these two organizations.
Later, in the 1980s, some VFW and AL posts began to welcome in Vietnam vets, and some did join, and they now form the core of the organization. But really, it was too late. The organizations were starting to whither. If you saw their political power in 1955 compared to now, you would be stunned. But the missed a step by denigrating the Vietnam era and so inevitably consigned themselves to the same dustbin as the Grand Army of the Republic.
It appears that in America we need a new generation of veteran organizations to come to life for those who have served in each generational war America chooses or is forced to fight. This seems just as clear as the fact that every generation needs a whole new crop of complete volunteers who are willing to write a one-time check to you, the people of the United States, which says, "Unlimited Draw, Up To and Including My Life." But with regard to the VFW and American Legion, well, the age gap between those who served in Iraq/Afghanistan and the youngest in those organizations, was more than three or four decades. Into the gap have stepped two new civilian organizations, created and manned largely by veterans of our fights, who bring access to the millions of us who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan (or in cases like mine, both) and try to acknowledge the issues that face a new generation of Americans in service. There is Team Red, White, and Blue, which I think of as the "grass roots" effort. And there is the equally laudable Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). Both groups, sadly, grow every year, since more veterans are created as long as we fight.
Now I will hand it off to one of my new friends, Chris Widell. I will quote him in whole, because he says it better than I can. He is a key part of Team Red White And Blue (Team RWB): "The reason some Veterans are depressed and others commit suicides has a lot to do with what William McNulty mentioned in his HuffPo blog on 13 JAN, despair resulting from a lack of connection and a perceived lack of purpose in one's life. Yes, physical and emotional isolation is depressing Veterans and leading to their suicides. Another repercussion of this lack of connection is what leads to this victimization attitude you mentioned: "I don't know you, why should I care about you?" Both sides of the civil-military divide may not say these words, but sometimes actions speak louder than words. And really, there's no easy way to create this connection. Connection cannot be simply purchased by a wealthy civilian population.
Wearing yellow ribbons will not provide for servicemen and women the personal, trusted connections that they once knew in the military. And social media, although technically a form of connection, does not provide real connection either. Connection takes persistence. Connection takes actions. It takes time and effort to build trust. But once you find that trust and establish that connection by moving yourself in a positive direction there's no more feeling of dependence upon someone or something else for you to "make it." You've done that on your own. No more handouts needed."
Obviously, that sets the bar. Connection is the key. But Team RWB offers an inlet to the culture of veterans, as isolated as they may be. As Chris laments, they are often seen as sort of a "veteran's running group." The fact is that they are not, they are so much more than that. They just happen to use physical fitness and in particular running as a mechanism to connect. But they also use social events and other connections to bring people together. What they are really shooting for is to connect the veteran with the community in which he lives. I will lean on Chris again to be specific.
"We firmly believe that providing this connection in a positive environment on a consistent basis in the communities where they live is the SINGLE best thing you can do for any Veteran whether they be physically wounded, psychologically wounded, both or neither! And that's exactly what we do. Here in Houston we host an average of 25 events per month (yes, nearly every day!) where Veterans and Civilians alike can exercise and/or socialize and connect in the communities where they live. And it's true, connection leads to a lot. In fact, the second and third order effects of being connected provides not only intangible goods like close, personal relationships and improved emotional health but also very tangible things like high-quality job opportunities and improved physical health. Most importantly, once Veterans are reconnected to their communities we believe they can become the hugely important assets that we know them to be."
And then there is IAVA, the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans organization that is similar to that historical American inclination I already mentioned. It seems a truism that we generationally need to grow a vet organization to exert political pressure in support of the veterans themselves, because failing that, things fall through the cracks. And truth be told, they are the powerhouse on this issue now. Founded in 2004 by veteran Paul Reickhoff, the organization has grown legs. Paul, as the public face, is a big, burly, bald-headed man who absolutely is not me, and who appears regularly all across the media. And damn, is he good at it. This has happened despite the physical similarities between us (because frankly, like Pierce, I have a face made for radio). Paul has grown an organization designed primarily to focus on veterans of these two wars, and to get Congress to listen.
IAVA does community outreach, but also focuses on Congressional issues, and how our political leaders might be acting on this issue or the other, with regard to those who went and got shot at. These are the folks who will work to make sure that at some point those who went to Iraq, or Afghanistan, or both, are not shafted by people who think them a silent minority. If you believe that there might be a little something extra about the guy or gal who went to either and laid it on the line, for the Constitution and America, then maybe this might be your high-power connection.
In the end I would say that both organizations are part of the solution. Take your pick, but when you pick, kick in to one or the other.