The Cost of Veteran Value Signaling

The 22-a-day number is not real.

The number publicized to show how many vets commit suicide every day is not real. The actual number is something less than that. And a deeper look into the data shows that the overwhelming majority of vet suicides are happening decades after service as men reach their 50’s and 60’s.

The hypothesis that military service is the primary driver behind that high number would not survive any serious analytical scrutiny.

That number is a part of a deluge of value signaling on social and mainstream media, corporate marketing campaigns and within personal relationships that washes over Americans, unchecked, every day. Often it’s well intentioned. Sometimes it’s fishing for praise. And other times it’s straight politics or marketing.

It generates a wellspring of good will. But it comes at a cost.

Yesterday morning a Marine Corps veteran charged into a country bar in Thousand Oaks, CA and murdered 12 people. This morning the President of the United States characterized him as a veteran suffering from PTSD. And now we’re likely going to have a national conversation about how to handle our unstable vets wandering around America.

This conversation will be the cost of years of veteran value signaling.

A lesser stated fact is that most vets haven’t, won’t and never have seen active combat. Our Vietnam vets are in their 70’s. The heaviest fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has been over for a decade. We’ve been engaged in low intensity conflict for longer than there has been daily combat. An unpopular and perhaps insensitive reality is that our dearth of PTSD diagnoses are as related to the removal of the requirement for a specific traumatic event from the disability criteria as they are anything else. And while this sounds like I’m about to jump full throttle into a “we all need to be less sensitive” rant, I’m not. I am going to insist we remain sensitive. But be sensitive to the right thing or we’re going to do damage to those we’re trying to protect. And the right thing, is not millions of American veterans walking around America with PTSD.

It’s not the reality.

In 2004, I walked off a plane and out of the military after serving as a detachment commander of a special operations unit deployed to Africa. I had three weeks to transition out of the military. Six months later, Operation Red Wings took place, the mission that would eventually be made into the movie Lone Survivor. 19 Special Operations personnel were lost.

The day that it happened, the wife of a deployed friend of mine called me. She asked me if I had any information about the operation or who had been involved and if her husband were ok. I couldn’t tell her anything because I didn’t know anything. I was out of the loop. I was away from the life, getting my information from the news, just like her. I hung up the phone and went into the bathroom and vomited.

In the few years after that, I behaved in ways I never had before. I made bad decisions, developed destructive habits and nearly destroyed my marriage. In fact, if not for a graceful forgiving wife, I would have. In reflection on that time in my life, I was quick to assign my problems to PTSD. And I found welcoming arms and belonging in a world that valued my service, gave me sympathy for what I went through. And made me feel like I belonged again.

There was one problem though. I didn’t have PTSD. Not in any real diagnostic sense.

Years later, my wife did an internship as a counselor for alcoholic and drug addicted homeless veterans. These were not the lonely Twitter mavens signaling to others for belonging. These were people who had destroyed their lives and reached the last stop on the train.

My wife’s opinion of the root cause? Was it PTSD? For a few it was. But the one nearly universal theme was that all of them had some kind of mental health issue before they went into the service that they couldn’t manage after they got out. Anxiety. Depression. ADD…other.

For the first time in their lives, they were alone. And no one was responsible for their well being. And they spiraled off the tracks.

My truth was that I came from four generations of fall down drunks self-medicating their anxiety. And at 27, for the first time in my life, the training wheels were off from a personal behavior perspective. And I couldn’t handle it.

Turns out, the Marine who murdered 12 people yesterday, is alleged to have attacked his high school track coach. The trend is intact.

Which takes me back to where we are on the arc of the discussion. I’ll button it up with three quick thoughts.

1-We have to stop feeding the narrative that all vets are wandering around with deep hidden wounds. Some are. The overwhelming majority are not. While it may feel like we’re being respectful and appreciative, we’re perpetuating something that is not true and in turn doing harm by characterizing a broad group of people as something they are not.

2-The DOD has to focus on treating people’s mental illness while they are in the service and doing more to eliminate negative career outcomes for those who seek help…while they’re in. Transferring accountability of that to the “cost of war” and trying to treat people with a genetic predisposition to depression or mental illness by telling them they have PTSD leads to bad outcomes when they release into the outside world because they’re treating the wrong illness.

3-We have to be serious about how to transition veterans into the outside world. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was a shock I was not prepared for. And our programs are window dressing. They are presently the least we can do without stepping on corporate toes or actually insisting on things from our citizens. Finding vets meaningful work is an investment that requires hard platforms of education, increased financial or legal incentives to hire and even entire government run companies to employ people and teach them skills. (Crazier than a 300million single fighter jet…?)

As much as I want to hire a vet, I can’t hire a computer engineer who can’t code, an analyst who can’t do data science or a product manager who can’t release a product. I say that as a vet.

And if you can’t find the right thing to put your energy into after war…you will find the wrong thing.

If you have PTSD and this rubbed you the wrong way, it wasn’t my intent. But there’s work to be done to get this conversation into a more productive domain. Because it won’t be long before one day, we’re not so appreciative of our vets. And it’s going to matter how much stock we put in just how damaged we all are because of our service.