Some time ago, an aspiring novelist visited my office to get some information for a book she wanted to write. The plot? An afflicted Veteran involved in a gruesome murder. . . .
And I said, oh, please.
But I have said that a number of times over the years, on numerous occasions. Some examples:
• While attempting to persuade media to cover a VA official’s speech to a Veterans’ group, I was asked by one newspaper editor if I could assure her that her photographer could get “pictures of old men in funny hats.”
• A Navy Times opinion piece by Lesa A. McComas referred to the designation of “disabled veteran” as “less a mark of distinction in this country than it is suitable for being written on a piece of cardboard and held by someone standing under a freeway overpass.”
• A Philadelphia Inquirer reporter posted an inquiry on the Internet asking for “sources to talk about the thousands of Vietnam veterans who languish away in VA hospitals across the country.”
• Readers exchanged barbs about World War Two Veterans in the Rocky Mountain News. Here are some sample comments: “Finally! I’m sick of the drunks from the VFW. . .” and “When will World War Two vets quit asking for more? When the last one is mercifully dead.”
• An executive from a chain of local radio stations visited our office for a “get to know you” meeting. Several minutes into it, she voiced her concern over the “millions of homeless Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.” (Millions? In fact, there aren’t quite one million Veterans from the Iraq and Afghan campaigns together–let alone one million homeless, Veteran or otherwise.)
In the past several decades, we have seen Veterans face an obstacle that is weaving into the American psyche–unjust stereotyping.
If you were to ask a group of VA employees–or the members of any Veterans Service Organization, or their families–what words come to mind when they hear the word “Veteran,” chances are they would say things like Duty, Honor, Sacrifice, Service.
Sadly, if you were to base your opinion of Veterans on entertainment media, and even some news media, you would instead come up with these words: homeless, sick, addicted, a menace to society–or all of the above.
Entertainment media have, over the years, made a highly negative stereotype of the Vietnam Veteran, and they have followed this up with negative portrayals of more recent Veterans. That portrayal is at odds with the facts.
There’s no doubt that there are many Veterans who have problems and need help. But Veterans are more than that–they are young, old, successful, famous, they are neighbors, friends and relatives–they are very much like the rest of America. Unfortunately, if you went by the preponderance of popular portrayals of Veterans, you could easily conclude that you would not want a Veteran in your neighborhood, or you would not want to hire one, or work for one.
Some media have even attacked Veterans benefits as needless coddling. Columnist William Safire once wrote a series of columns blasting VA and Veterans benefits. Others have called Veterans benefits “welfare.” The result of all this is an alternating image of Veterans as a group of hopeless wrecks or a group of pampered beneficiaries–and sometimes people hold both contradictory images as true, without thinking about the contradiction. These images, however, are at odds with reality.
There can be no doubt that many Veterans are suffering, many need our help. But it is wrong to label our 23 million-plus Veterans as objects of pity. Consider just a few facts–Veterans on the whole are:
• Better educated. In particular, 89 percent of Veterans age 25 and older have a high school diploma, compared to 81.6 percent of the general population. In addition, 25 percent of Veterans age 25 and older have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 18.9 percent of the general population.
• Better paid. Veterans earn more than their peers. The median income for Veterans is five percent higher than the median income for the general population.
• Less likely to suffer poverty. Overall, 5.6 percent of Veterans live in poverty, compared with 10.9 percent of the U.S. adult population in general.
• Stable. Seventy percent of the most-stereotyped Veterans–Vietnam Veterans–are married and have children. Of about 23 million total veterans, 107,000, or less than one-half of one percent, are homeless. (And may I add, therefore, that ending homelessness among Veterans is clearly an achievable goal.)
• Successful. Many U.S. Senators and Representatives, successful business leaders and entertainment celebrities are Veterans. Some of them are former VA clients or patients.
These are our Veterans. These are our heroes. We are all–not just America, but the world–better off because American Veterans have drawn breath. Let us now forsake stereotypes in favor of facts. Let us recognize Veterans for who they are–the successful as well as those who need our help. They deserve our help. They also deserve our respect.
As the President said in December 2009:
“. . .the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens. . .The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden. . .because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.”
Thank you, and thank a Veteran today.
Paul Sherbo is a Regional Director for VA’s Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs. He is a retired U.S. Navy Reserve Captain and served six years of active duty in the U.S. Navy, including service in Iraq. Paul and his wife, Diana live in Lakewood, Colorado. They have a son in the Army, a daughter in publishing and a younger daughter in ROTC. Paul has been a student of martial arts, even though he is old enough to know better.