Defying ‘victim’ perceptions, veterans share how they face the everyday challenges
of simply getting on with life
“I didn’t need charity. I needed a new sense of purpose. We are people — people the public has invested in who have a lot of potential.”
“I didn’t need charity. I needed a new sense of purpose. We are people — people the public has invested in who have a lot of potential.”
With Hollywood leading the way with movies like Black Hawk Down, 13 Hours, American Sniper, The Hurt Locker and First Blood, the public’s perceptions of servicemembers and veterans tend to be that of either heroes or broken warriors. And there appears to be little room for middle ground, according to a growing number of people who are trying to break down stereotypes about those who serve in the military.In a recent article in The New York Times, entitled “Coming Home to Damaging Stereotypes,” veteran Chris Marvin said the public must realize there’s a massive middle ground when it comes to perceptions about servicemembers who return home after duty.“The truth is, 99 percent of us are neither heroic nor broken,” Marvin said. “We are people — people the public has invested in who have a lot of potential. It’s time to get over the pity party.”Marvin was the founder of Got Your 6, an organization that’s committed to bridging the divide between veterans and citizens. It gets its name from a military phrase that means “I support you … I’ve got your back.”Got Your 6 Executive Director Bill Rausch was among the panelists for a session on how to support current veterans during the American Legion Auxiliary’s 2016 Washington DC Conference.Rausch said it’s time to introduce new narratives that accurately portray the real-life challenges facing veterans, particularly post-9/11 veterans.That same topic was addressed at last year’s Washington DC Conference. Guest speakers said that media portrayals of veterans need to change. Laura Law-Millet, executive director of the G.I. Film Festival, said most people’s knowledge of service-members comes from TV and movies that depict veterans as being unstable, like Sylvester Stallone’s character John Rambo in First Blood.Although people subconsciously may realize those depictions are sensational and inaccurate, they can still stick — leading to veterans having problems making the adjustment to civilian life, including getting higher paying jobs, said Law-Millet, who served in the Army.Michael Glover, a veteran from California, said it’s important to avoid treating veterans like victims.“The number one thing I would tell a civilian trying to help a veteran is this: ‘Soldiers are soldiers because they volunteered to be soldiers,’” said Glover, who served in the Army’s Special Operations. “Don’t make them feel like victims. The Veterans Affairs Department makes veterans feel like victims, and it offends them. Be direct and clear and concise, and speak the same language soldiers speak,” added Glover, who has also volunteered at the VA.As part of the American Legion Auxiliary’s efforts to support servicemembers as they make the transition to civilian life, we talked to six veterans, including Glover, about what it’s like to step out of the uniform at the end of their military service and adapt to a different set of obstacles as a civilian.
At the age of 17, Michael Glover was ready to leave high school behind to take on whatever came his way as a new enlistee in the U.S. Army. He was already familiar with military service since his father served in the Army. “I was always hearing about the Army,” Glover said. “I grew up in that environment.”So, as a teenager, he felt at home when he started undergoing training. “It was an easy transition — something I fell right into,” he said. In fact, he seemed to adapt better than some of the older guys in his group. When he heard an enlistee next to him complaining about basic training, Glover let him have it. “I was the 17-year-old kid in basic training yelling at the 25-yearold adult who was complaining about his suffering,” he recalled.Shortly after his basic training, Glover underwent the rigorous training required for the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), those elite servicemembers who serve as Tomb Guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. He also went to Airborne School and Ranger School. “I wanted to maximize my time while I was in the infantry,” Glover said.However, to his dismay, there was “nothing going on in the world,” Glover recalled of his first years serving in the military. “I wanted to fight and serve on the front lines.”On Sept. 3, 2001, Glover transitioned into the National Guard under a three-year, 11-month commitment. In just a matter of days, all that changed. “Then 9/11 happened,” Glover said. “I immediately started putting together the paperwork to get back into the Army.” And his goal was the Army’s Special Forces. After selection and training, Glover made good on that goal; he became part of the Special Forces in 2003.Glover, who recently went on Inactive Ready Reserve (IRR) after being with Special Forces for the past 18 years, said he fully realizes that he is fortunate to be a civilian.“Guys in my line of work come out injured, or they get killed,” he said. “We know that volunteering for Special Forces training means we’re voluntarily putting ourselves in harm’s way. Getting killed in combat is part of our duty and job. When it happens, we all understand that it’s part of the risks of doing what we do and doing what we love.”During his years of service, Glover went to war seven times — four times in Iraq, twice in Afghanistan and once in Libya. He also has been involved in military special operations in Yemen and Pakistan.In all, he has lost 14 close friends and several dozen acquaintances — too many to easily count. “They have all been tragic,” Glover said. “But more importantly, they all lived the lives they wanted to live. There’s no place they would rather be than fighting side by side for their friends, family, and country.”Just before transitioning to civilian life, Glover decided to translate his skills into a business that allows him to still give back. Through FieldCraft Survival LLC, he teaches everyday civilians about survival skills that can help them get through various challenges, such as natural disasters like flooding and blizzards, or terrorist attacks like the Boston Marathon bombings.In addition to teaching survival skills, Glover volunteers to help other veterans, especially those who have been diagnosed with PTSD. He advocates for programs that are more holistic in their approach.“PTSD is a four-letter word. No one wants to talk about PTSD,” said Glover, who is trying to help redefine it. “My whole push is to talk about how it’s not specifically related to a traumatic incident. Being in the military can be a series of traumatic events. What the Army and military have failed to do is implement programs that work in helping servicemembers transition into civilian lives. Government programs are a dime a dozen, but they’re not holistic in any of their approaches. They’re temporary, at best.”Part of the problem lies in a lack of understanding of what PTSD looks like, Glover said, using himself as an example. “I don’t think it’s PTSD that I have, but that’s how the VA would describe it.”To explain, Glover described an appointment he had at a nearby VA facility as part of his transition interviews. “They were doing construction in the hallway,” he recalled. “As I walked into the office, I heard a loud bang. For me, quickly turning my head was me being aware of my surroundings. It’s part of my training.”However, the psychologist immediately started taking notes, Glover recalled. In explaining her notes, she told Glover, “I noticed that you were a little timid. I saw how you reacted to that loud noise.”“That’s not me being timid,” Glover said. “That’s me being aware. You can’t tell a soldier who has served 18 years in Special Operations that because he turned his head to a loud noise that he has a problem.“I’ve talked to a lot of soldiers who have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and I tell them, ‘Let’s not talk about your problems. Let’s talk about fixing your problems,’” Glover added.One of the issues with “talking about problems” is that the veterans are reliving those “problems” again and again, Glover pointed out. Instead, the focus should be directed toward solutions that can be addressed by asking questions like, “How do we work on managing your stress levels?” he said. “They want clear and concise solutions.”When helping veterans reintegrate into society, the focus should be on reconditioning, Glover said. Using an analogy, he pointed to the behavior exhibited by military working dogs when they are trained.“They react and respond to commands and orders; you’re programming conditioned responses that you want accomplished,” Glover said. “In our case, when you take us off the battlefield, our minds are still programmed to operate a certain way.”Those who are working to help veterans get employment also need to think more strategically, Glover said. He knows of Special Forces operators who have been told they should apply for entry-level jobs as police officers in small communities, making $28,000 a year. “Why not direct them to jobs in management, leadership, where they can make $75,000 a year and better use their skills?” Glover asked.“We don’t have the right tools to reintegrate soldiers into society,” he said. “We need to develop more effective programs that help them transition.”
Retired Army Col. Mike Winstead served more than 30 years in the military before he retired in 2012. The North Carolina native followed in the footsteps of his father, a World War II veteran, and enlisted in the military in 1976. He became an officer and served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan.Winstead said he didn’t face some of the trials and tribulations that other servicemembers face, but the transition wasn’t easy.“The hardest transition I think is no longer wearing the uniform and no longer being a soldier who deploys,” said Winstead, who lives in Norfolk, Va., and writes concept papers for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff .“Don’t get me wrong; it’s not easy on families and I’m happy not to leave my family, but the camaraderie that you have as a soldier stops, and you have to deal with that.”After 30 years in the military, he quickly learned he needed to redirect his energies. Winstead changed his focus to his family and suggests that other servicemembers transitioning out of the military do the same.“Your family has given a whole lot for you to be gone all the time, and now that you’re able to be with them, you can help out more than you could before,” Winstead said.He also suggests that veterans pick up a hobby. Winstead enjoys woodworking and has made furniture, jewelry boxes, and other items for his family.Another lesson he wants to pass on to veterans is the importance of keeping track of medical records related to injuries. It is critical to have those records when it is time to retire and they don’t always get transferred stateside, he said.
Jen Hayward has been around the Air Force her entire life. With her father as an inspiration from his service in the Air Force, she decided to join the Air Force ROTC program at the University of Florida. In 2007, she was commissioned to serve.Hayward stayed on an assignment in Illinois for two years before joining her husband, who also was in the Air Force, in England. They served there for four years before she was assigned to Oklahoma and he was assigned to Texas.When Hayward, a cyberspace operations officer, learned about her pregnancy with their son, she was faced with a tough decision. If she stayed in the Air Force, she knew that she and her husband would be in separate locations for the next few years. However, if she left the service, they could raise their son together. In the summer of 2014, Hayward made the decision to leave the Air Force after seven years.“I love the Air Force, but you hear so many times you want to run out of career before you run out of family, and we wanted to raise our son in the same household,” Hayward said.Hayward , who now lives in Texas, admits the transition was a challenge because the Air Force was all she knew for most of her life.“Getting out of the Air Force is going to cause mixed feelings,” Hayward said. “I’m glad because I get to see my son grow up, but I miss the lifestyle. I wouldn’t trade the seven years I was in for anything.”She cautions others to give it a lot of thought and not make any decisions based on one assignment. She suggests that servicemembers carefully consider what they want to do next and take the transition programs seriously.Another option, she pointed out, is taking a sabbatical through the Career Intermission Program. It allows servicemembers to put their careers on hold for up to three years before they return to service.To help with her own transition and future, Hayward is focusing on her family. She also plans to use the GI Bill to go back to school.
Scott Winter had served 20 years in the Army before retiring in 2014. The New York native had received his commission in 1994 through the ROTC program at Niagara University.Based on his experiences, Winter said, the transition program could use some improvements to better serve servicemembers re-entering civilian life.“The transition process is set up for one-size-fits-all, and that’s just shouldn’t be the case,” Winter said.For instance, lectures and classes seemed to be designed for servicemembers who are transitioning with three to 10 years of service, Winter said. However, people like him who are retiring after 20 or more years of service don’t find the information beneficial.“It didn’t do me any good to sit in a classroom talking about future school options or trade schools,” Winter said. “Most people in the class were frustrated when taught how to fill out a job application. We needed to learn how to build resumes based on our experiences and how to tackle the USA Jobs application process.”The program could be more beneficial if classes were tailored toward individuals with similar experience levels, Winter said.Winter’s advice for someone thinking about retiring is to start networking with people who have already started the retirement process or recently retired.“The best way to keep the information flowing is to pass it down and mentor one another,” Winter said.
Chad Truitt transitioned out of the Marine Corps in August after 17 years of service. He followed in the steps of his father, also a Marine, when he enlisted in 1998. Over the years, Truitt worked on engines in the aviation field and deployed to South Korea and Iraq.Truitt weighed the pros and cons of an early retirement and decided it was the right decision because of medical issues. The transition was difficult at first, he said.“I had a bad taste in my mouth from command, so I wanted nothing to do with the military for a while,” Truitt said. “Since then, my views have changed and I know that anywhere you work, you’re going to have employees you disagree with, and I’m not blaming the military for that.”Since then, Truitt is working and has returned to school to receive a business management degree. This summer, he plans to move from Florida back to his home state of Washington to help his dad run an online merchandising business.Truitt’s advice for others is to have a plan, take advantage of educational benefits, and do something that interests you.“When you’re in the military, you’re sent to so many places, and you don’t always get to do what you want,” Truitt said. “Whether you serve for four years, 20 years or 40 years, you can transition into something you enjoy.”
Martin Cardenas grew up in Norfolk, Va., and was no stranger to the military lifestyle. His parents were both in the Marine Corps, and his brother was in the Air Force. His family wasn’t surprised when he decided to join the Navy.Cardenas was also familiar with the educational benefits that would come from serving in the military.He enlisted in 2008 when he was a senior in high school. He was only 17 years old, which required having his parents sign his enlistment papers. Cardenas said he experienced a bit of culture shock going from a private Catholic school to boot camp, but he enjoyed meeting people from so many different backgrounds.He was assigned to Mississippi for a few months before eventually being stationed back in Virginia. After four years of active duty, he transitioned out of the military in 2012.The transition wasn’t without its tests. Cardenas, who now lives in Orlando, Fla., said it was challenging because he had a really romantic idea of how things would be.“I thought I would get a career right away, buy a house and maybe start a family, but that isn’t the way things work,” Cardenas said. “I quickly learned I wasn’t going to be able to find a job using the skills I learned in the Navy with pay that I was comfortable with.”A year later, Cardenas looked into education options. Using his GI Bill, he received an associate’s degree in art and is now majoring in English with a focus in literature. He plans to continue his education by attending law school.He recommends that others research available educational benefits and develop a career plan.“Find something you’re passionate about, and study that,” Cardenas said. “School becomes your job, but it doesn’t have to feel like a job if you like it.”He also suggests using skills from the military to supplement income. When he wasn’t in school, Cardenas took up freelance writing and editing to supplement his income.Program allows servicemembers to take up to three years offThe Career Intermission Program is making it easier for servicemembers to balance career and family. Through the program, approved servicemembers can take a sabbatical of up to three years.Katie Evans, a temporarily separated Air Force captain (pictured at right), said the program is eff ective. “Some may think it’s just ‘mommy’ leave; it’s not,” she said. “This is for folks who would like to focus on a diff erent part of their life for a period of time but also feel they have more to contribute to the Air Force and the mission.”Several military branches off er the program that was initially authorized as part of the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act.The Air Force recently began off ering the pilot program that allows up to 40 members to participate. Servicemembers receive full benefits as well as a stipend of 1/15th of their monthly base pay.When their sabbatical is over, those servicemembers will be required to spend twice as long in active-duty status as they spent in the program.The Navy has off ered the career intermission pilot program since 2009. Other military branches have followed suit with the Marine Corps off ering it in 2013 and the Army in 2014. The Navy is asking Congress to widen the eligibility of the program and make it available to 400 participants.