Recent events, new suicide data and employer survey results paint a difficult picture of veterans in America. Veterans need to take an active role in changing trends and perceptions.
The disheartening events in Dallas struck a heart-breaking blow to the families affected by the loss of life and the community around them. The veteran community, more broadly, reacted with shock and dismay when details surrounding the likely perpetrator indicated he was an honorably discharged Army veteran.
Two other news items that same week added to the negative narrative that continues to hover unfairly over all veterans. First, the Department of Veterans Affairs published the most comprehensive study on veteran suicide to date, which more accurately estimated the number to be 20 per day. Most concerning in the new findings are the risks to younger veterans and women veterans when compared to non-veteran counterparts.
Veterans under age 30 have twice the suicide rate when compared to older veterans (who still account for the largest portion of veteran suicides). Similarly, young women veterans are nearly four times as likely to die by suicide compared to non-veteran women.
Second, Edelman released some of the results of its recent survey which found 84 percent of employers viewed veterans as heroes, but only 26 percent viewed veterans as "strategic assets." Similar studies in recent years show an increasing division between veterans and other Americans with no military connection. A general lack of understanding between those who have served and those who have not plagues many veterans seeking future opportunities.
In less than 72 hours, Americans read articles depicting veterans as homicidal maniacs, suicidal victims and employees of little value. These stories have the potential of reversing progress made by many government and private sector leaders who have worked tirelessly to create a more responsible narrative reflecting the spectrum of attributes (both positive and negative) relating to service member and veteran experiences. Leaders at the White House's Joining Forces Initiative, led by Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden, along with former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen and General Dempsey, and private sector stakeholders and advocates have helped dispel myths about veterans in recent years.
Yet, despite these public-facing efforts and campaigns, the convergence of several news items has the potential to reverse progress. Coupled with the Joint Chiefs of Staff ending its biggest advocacy effort aimed at helping service members transition, the Chairman's Office of Reintegration (formerly Office of Warrior and Family Support), our nation's veterans, service members and military-affiliated families will continue to be plagued by false narratives, misallocated resources and stereotypes.
With these challenges in mind, veterans and military families need to take an active role in setting the record straight and in voicing real needs to ensure resources are directed where needed most. Here are several ways families can start:
1. Tell your story
Sociologists teach us that societies are always changing. These changes are often the result of modification in social relationships. Sharing your experiences with others is a vital step in reducing the civilian-military drift. As Gen. Martin Dempsey articulated, "If you want to stay connected to the American people, you can't do it episodically." The most powerful way to reconnect with the rest of America is to openly share your military experiences without exaggeration or diminishing the realities.
2. Participate in surveys
Academic institutions, government agencies and nonprofit organization are often seeking survey responses from veterans or military families. Taking 10 or 15 minutes to provide input could ensure you and other military-affiliated families get the resources they need. One such survey, conducted by Military-Transition.org, is ongoing and actively seeking recently transitioned service member respondents. The Center for a New American Security is also running a Veteran Retention Survey.
3. Give Feedback
We all know the power of customer reviews. Sites like Yelp, Trip Advisor, or Google+ are some of the first places consumers look before choosing a location for dinner, planning a vacation or making a purchase at a retailer. As veterans, we know there is an inherent trust of other veterans. Many of us rely on fellow veterans to help us find credible counselors, get information about a new community we're moving to or help us find an employer who has values similar to those experienced while in uniform. Now is the time to merge these two realities (the value of aggregated online reviews and inherent veteran trust of fellow veterans). Are you giving feedback and leaving reviews for businesses that offer discounts to service members and veterans? Have you accessed services from a nonprofit organization or public agency and if so, did you leave them feedback so they can improve their services? If you're not doing so, I'd encourage you to leave feedback. To make it simple, try a new site, WeVets.us, designed exclusively to capture veteran and military family feedback so fellow services members and veterans can find valuable services.
4. Self-identify in the workplace
CEB Global reviewed the records of more than one million employees and found veterans to be 4% more productive than non-veteran employees and have a 3% lower turnover rate. While the Edleman survey above indicates an employer perception problem, the CEB data indicate a strong business case for hiring veterans. As a veteran in the workforce, are you self-identifying to your employer? Are you serving your company in a way that leverages your prior military experiences? It is through self-identification and exemplary service that employer perceptions will shift over time.
One of the most coveted freedoms service members defend is our right to vote. As defenders and former defenders of that right, exercise your own right to vote. Elect public officials who have veteran and military family interests in mind. Register to vote and then vote in upcoming elections. If you're overseas or a military voter, register here.
Chris Ford is a champion for veterans and military families; advocating for solutions that eliminate barriers to the successful transition and reintegration of service members and their families. As the CEO of NAVSO, he expresses his passion and commitment to improve the lives of veterans and military families by providing essential resources to those who serve them. Chris is a 20-year Air Force veteran who retired in 2014 from the Joint Chiefs of Staff where he served in the Chairman's Office of Warrior and Family Support. During his Air Force career, he deployed in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom and earned many decorations and awards including the Bronze Star Medal, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Joint Meritorious Unit Award, and the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with Valor.