I can’t recall a time when I was thanked for my military service and didn’t wonder just what exactly that person meant. Were they thankful that I took the defense of the nation in hand? Did they think that I stood watch on some specified border between insurgents and our coalition forces? Perhaps it was simply good American manners that they show appreciation for those who serve.
No matter the reason, it’s difficult to know how to react when faced with this gratitude. I often feel guilty accepting the appreciation because most of these well-meaning people know little about what I actually did.
It’s this gap in understanding that most veterans face when they return to civilian life, and the distance can feel isolating. When I left the military in 2010, the transition from being a Navy corpsman embedded with a Marine unit to a civilian on my own happened fast. In one year, I went from being single and enlisted to becoming a veteran, a father, a husband, and a full-time student.
When you enter the military, you can face up to two years of training before you actually get to serve. The process for completing your service and rejoining regular society takes up to a week. Two tops. That says a lot, and not much of it is good.
It wasn’t until I happened to work alongside several other veterans while in college—nearly five years after I was out of the Navy—that I began to really adjust to at least a form of civilian society. Perhaps even more valuably, I learned how to employ the skills and core values I learned in the military to help my peers and bosses at work.
While I have found a way to adjust to life as a veteran and a college student, I have witnessed others struggle needlessly.
With the prolonged conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, our nation’s veteran population is about to grow substantially. What we lack is a comprehensive and empathetic program that would help ease their reentry back into our communities, and into American society, in general.
So what’s the Next Idea?
I think building something like a VetCorps for Michigan, structured along the lines of AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, that directs veteran volunteers to help out with needs in their communities, could be one place to start.
The VetCorps’ mission would be threefold:
• Provide an opportunity for veterans to connect with other veterans, as well as with people in the community.
• Offer real-world work experience that gives veterans a chance to transition their skills into the civilian world and help better their communities.
• Contribute to projects that help cities and towns grow, beautify and connect.
The VetCorps projects could range from just a veteran and a community volunteer partnering to clean up a local park to large groups working on major initiatives with organizations like Habitat for Humanity and the Red Cross.
The program would be completely voluntary, and vets would be made aware of the closest VetCorps chapter upon discharge.
A program like this would give soldiers returning from their tours the distinction of using their skills and experience to contribute to their communities. Their neighbors would have the opportunity to get to know and understand them, and would also be able to understand what their gratitude means.
But most importantly, vets would get the chance to interact with other veterans who have been in similar experiences, and they’d get some time to transition back into regular society on their own terms.
The veteran’s experience right after discharge has remained relatively unchanged for several generations. Without any efforts to make it better for the tens of thousands who will be coming home soon, the situation for our veterans -- and our communities -- has the potential to get worse before it gets better.
I don’t know if the VetCorps idea could work. I’m just one of countless veterans in Michigan who has been through the system and recognized a problem that needs a solution.
What I do know, however, is that instead of numerous “thank you’s,” a more genuine show of appreciation would be to pay closer attention to how the men and women coming out of the military are received in our communities.
Christopher Bamberg graduated from Western Michigan University last May with a degree in Rhetoric and Writing Studies. He served in the Navy, including as a corpsman in Iraq, from 2005-2010.