Countering Negative Stereotypes of Veterans


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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 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.

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Comments

  1. andy    

    As a regular civilian who doesn’t have the guts to go to a warzone, i would just like to say that all vets, and current servicemen alike, deserve a huge ‘thank you’ for all the good work that they do. I think many people on civvy street never really understand exactly the sacrifices all you guys make on behalf of people such as myself.

    I don’t have words to express my gratitude. But thank you for being you.

  2. Maurice Wyman Scott    

    Sir, I really don’t understand why the Columbia Regional Office, where they don’t even have the support of the on campus VHA, who thinks they are subjectively wrong, would risk me going to the media, in order to protect those who harmed me by their provable mishandling, purposeful of my claims, and with malice aforethought, and on the eve of my last known nationally televised interview about this corruption, promising that they would correct the problem, but instead lied to a us congressman, after the congressional liason sent them a letter of inquiry, asking questions of which they had evidence to the contrary, and instead lied nevertheless.

    They are politicians, they are going to tell it, and the VA will look like they hide the bad people.

  3. tparker    

    Thank you for your insightful blog entry. My dad was a WWII POW for 16 months. He went through Hell on the front lines in Europe and fell desperately ill and starved as a POW. He only weighed 85 pounds when his stalag was liberated. My dad came home, raised a family and built up a business, all while suffering physical and mental effects from WWII. Despite all of his travails, my dad’s now 93 and says, happily, that he’s had a good life.

    Yet a friend of mine has joined a church group formed to challenge the alleged “growing militarization” of our country. His church leaders warn of the societal problems that will be caused by vets returning from battles in the Middle East.

    Such allegations bely the truth, which is that, overall, generations of our U.S. veterans have contributed positively to society upon their return home. Their bravery, loyalty and self-discipline benefits all of us. And those men and women who suffer from any ill effects caused by their service to our country deserve whatever aid and compensation can be mustered for their care.

  4. PANV    

    Very good article and interesting responses. I would like to add mine. Rated at 10% for a sc shoulder injury and 0% testicular bump incurred prior to retirement felt justified butr not recognized for chronic neck, back pain, elevated Blood Pressure, Fibromyalgia, elevatewd blood sugar. Now with hypertension anmd diabetes. Upon retirement told wasn’t disabled. 10 YRS LATER attempted Category 8 RECOGNITION and given care by VAafter year wait. When I joined in 1970 after I had my HS diploma which helped me advance in the military, intially it was either be drafted sent to Nam, be patriotic and join or activist go to Canada. tHE PROSPECT OF GOING THRU my adult life in a broken society and suffering the sterotypes of a vet was easier to return to Active duty. There youonly deal with the task at hand. Welfare of your family, troops and mission. There use to be good sterotypes; hard worker, earn your keep, be responsible. But drugs and money brought out the worse in people. Greed and corruption. Sticking to a common cause, striving for fairness, commiting to do the right thing reorganized the commonality of mankind. It took me 10 yrs to ask the VA for help only because I didn’t want to be identified as disabled. I agree if you serve your country one should be given a stipen for that service. If you earn a certain amount than that can be offset. Now That I am 100% disabled by my noncombat TBI’s it probably interfers with VA claim yet to be filed but thru the Cat 8 program they do the most for me. And probably will charge SSA or workers comp. Our Veteran’s should never have to prove they served and owed. Especially when America I heard owes China for monies borrowed and forgave El SALVADORES NATIONAL dEBT IN 90’S. A greatful concern veteran for our veterans. I would like to note recognition of recent Agent Orange maladies and new PTSD is a start more has to be done. Every Vet deserves a stipend. Thank you to those that are starting to tell our vets thank you.

  5. Carolle Brulee-Wilson    

    A common question- WHY ARE THEY HOMELESS? Answered by an insightful individualby NVHS National Veterans Homeless Support on Sunday, August 29, 2010 at 4:40am

    A common question that most people think and fewer people ask about Homeless Veterans in America…

    A caring and insightful woman explains in her words. A worthwhile read. Thank you Carolle. God Bless.

    Q: WHY ARE THEY HOMELESS? I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY THEY CAN NOT DRAW A CHECK FOR SERVING OUR COUNTRY -ARE THEY ABLE TO WORK OR WHAT? – IN NO WAY AM I JUDGING THEM, EVERYBODY NEEDS HELP SOME TIME IN THEIR LIFE…

    Answer/ Response by: Carolle Brulee-Wilson

    Alll Homeless Vets are not being compensated for their disabilities with a disability compensation income from the VA. The reasons for this are many,they don’t belong to a DAV Chapter, if they did they could get rated at 10% to start, receive a little money, and file another claim down the road, some Vet’s don’t want anything to do with the VA or the government, or there’s no Service Officer available for them to help them file a claim so they can go see a doctor, there may not be a VA Clinic close to them to go see a doctor,they may be in denial about their health, not enough VA shelters, and as stated before, some have just given up on life, some are the products of government originated chemicals from the weapons we and the enemy used (agent orange, Urainium), some have seperated from their families because the just can’t cope with a normal family situation, or cause tense incidents in the home like screaming at night mood changes ect., some just want to be alone, and others have PTSD, a serious mental disability from any traumatic experience. Not just Vets can have this, anyone. the folks from katrina can agree. The horrors of war, seeing your fellow soilder split open like a watermelon, seeing missing limbs, body parts shot off, the sound of big gun fire all day long, constantly living in fear of being killed, when you don’t know where the bullets are comming from, having to walk an inch at a time cause if you step too far….Boom! And when they come back, it’s not easy for them to just adjust back into civilian life when horror preys on their mind every day like a movie over and over again in your head,and all they are used to is a military routine. Civilian life is foreign to them, to include finding employment especially if they don’t want to be around anybody, plus if they have physical problems or mental, who’s gonna hire them?

    Try go and see that movie that was directed by that lady director. You’ll be moved. I’ve lived here 14 years, served in the USN for the same amount of years.

    A common question- WHY ARE THEY HOMELESS? Answered by an insightful individualby NVHS National Veterans Homeless Support on Sunday, August 29, 2010 at 4:40am

    A common question that most people think and fewer people ask about Homeless Veterans in America…

    A caring and insightful woman explains in her words. A worthwhile read. Thank you Carolle. God Bless.

    Q: WHY ARE THEY HOMELESS? I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY THEY CAN NOT DRAW A CHECK FOR SERVING OUR COUNTRY -ARE THEY ABLE TO WORK OR WHAT? – IN NO WAY AM I JUDGING THEM, EVERYBODY NEEDS HELP SOME TIME IN THEIR LIFE…

    You have to go to the site to read my response. Your site won’t take it all.

    Carolle Brulee-Wilson

  6. james    

    Outstanding, and thank you…

  7. Scott    

    Sounds very too familiar; While working for Airgas Carbonic in Star, Mississippi between the years of 1998 and 1999 in Dry Ice production, a group of guys working with me used to make CO2 Bombs and through them at my feet while I was washing the Dry Ice boxs on the was rack. They would take a 20oz plastic coke bottle, file it up with about an half of inch of water then drop a dry ice pellet inside the bottle , then tighten the top on it and roll it under the garage door out at my feet as quick as they could before it blew up so that it would explode at my feet and make me jump.
    when I asked them why they would do this they stated that the did this to see if I would have flash backs like one of the guys dad does that works over at the post office. They claimed that the guys dad is a Vietnam Vet and every time he heard loud noises he would hit the floor crawling and yelling from a PTSD episode. Then one day I was out in the parking lot there counting my change for a drink, when these same guys walked up and surrounded me and one guy pulled a pistol from under his seat of his truck then pointed it in my face and told me to try and take it away from him or he was going to take my change if I didn’t. I looked at him and laughed and told him to go ahead and just pull the trigger as I thought to my self that I could disarm him if I wanted to but I knew that if I did one of his friends may have gotten shot in the process because of the location of the guys fingers on the gun would have flinched the trigger. So I just walked off and left them standing there joking around with each other. All of this was do according to those guys as a joke on me because I am a Vet and they thought that I might be crazy.

  8. roger    

    It’s great the va wants to help homeless vets. what would realy help is for them to settle our claims so we can aford a place to live. i’ve been unable to work for a year and a half,they forclosed on my home and i can barely pay rent. getting my claim settled woild realy make a differance.

  9. Paul Sullivan    

    Paul,

    One additional note. VA should be commended for efforts to reduce existing homelessness as well as prevent future homelessness. Many people see homeless veterans on the street and use these examples to stereotype other veterans.

    The biggest economic obstacle for many homeless veterans remains the fiasco of one million pending claims at VBA. VBA takes five months to process an original claim, and another four years to process an appeal. Claims for PTSD take even longer. Hopefully, new PTSD rules will help our homeless veterans and other veterans with PTSD the medical care and payments they need so they don’t fall through the cracks.

    I applaud Secretary Shinseki and his staff for promising to end homelessness. I hope Congress doesn’t cut funding for this social program in order to pay for a tax cut for the rich – money they don’t need, money our homeless veterans need in order to pay rent, pay bills, and buy food.

    Paul.

  10. Paul Sullivan    

    Dear Paul,

    Your essay is correct and well written. Thank you for posting your thoughts. Thanks for working at VA. And welcome home from Iraq.

    Here are a few additional thoughts for another essay.

    A more robust essay would have mentioned in detail how the 1944 GI Bill promoted education and home ownership among World War II veterans for more than 66 years, making it the most revolutionary, liberal, and successful social program to dramatically improve the general welfare of Americans (other than income and medical safety nets such as Social Security). For the record, both John McCain and George W. Bush opposed restoring the GI Bill for Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans.

    When veterans attend college, more professors are hired and colleges are expanded. When veterans buy houses, more bankers, construction workers, and developers get good jobs. Nearly all Americans won with this highly successful multi-billion dollar social program. That’s why we have taxes, and why deficit spending can be very beneficial for our nation.

    A more robust and accurate report would mention the thousands of reporters who get it right when covering the military and veterans, often with no personal or family military experience. Kyra Phillips at CNN bends over backwards to report on veterans’ needs and challenges. Katie Couric at CBS regularly reports on veterans. And Bob Woodruff at ABC was seriously wounded in Iraq, and he fights every day for veterans suffering with traumatic brain injury. A strong example is Kelly Kennedy, a Gulf War veteran who works at USA Today. Her outstanding reporting at Army Times has exposed many problems facing our troops and veterans.

    A more robust essay would have mentioned how VA (under the previous administration) intentionally and repeatedly misled reporters and Congress about the escalating number of veteran suicides. A RAND report mentioned one of the biggest obstacles to veterans seeking care is stigma – discrimination – against troops who mention mental health symptoms to military superiors and veterans who mention them to work supervisors. Together, we need to fight that discrimination by letting people know anxiety, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder after deployment is real, and recovery assistance is available.

    A more robust essay would insist VA and DoD cooperate on a broad anti-stigma campaign about PTSD. The more mental health professionals VA has on staff to meet demand, the more outreach VA conducts, and the more the public, veterans, and families know about PTSD, then the more likely our veterans will seek care sooner, when treatment is less expensive and more effective.

    A final personal note about “crazy veterans.” I still remember when VA leaders and DoD leaders told reporters and Congress that veterans’ claims of toxic exposures during the 1991 Gulf War were nonsense. In several instances, VA and DoD staff told editors and producers that Gulf War veterans were crazy in order to delay or stop investigations into why so many of us were ill. Some of those VA and DoD leaders remain on staff today.

    Well, it turns out a few VA and DoD leaders knew about the toxic exposures and hid the facts from reporters, Congress, veterans, and researchers. VA and DoD told some reporters that veterans complaining of Gulf War illness were faking illness to obtain payments, intentionally exacerbating veterans’ medical problems. Similarly, when it comes to PTSD, conservatives like Dr. Sally Satel fight against benefits for veterans with PTSD.

    What we do know about Gulf War illness is clear. After 20 years, both VA’s Research Advisory Committee and the Institute of Medicine concluded 250,000 Gulf War veterans truly remain ill after deployment – and the cause isn’t psychiatric. VA never apologized for misleading statements. And VA still refuses to conduct research for treatments. VA fought to shut down existing research in the past two years.

    We should also remember how VA fought against benefits for Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange (until Congress intervened). Veterans are thankful VA Secretary Shinseki began fixing that last year. Even worse, VA still fights against benefits for veterans exposed to radiation from atomic bomb blasts and depleted uranium. Sadly, sometimes, a few VA leaders can be the worst enemies of veterans. Luckily for us, most of the new leaders at VA are becoming veterans’ advocates. Hopefully they will remain a few more years and implement greater reform.

    Once VA is more firmly established as a “Veteran Advocacy” department, then VA can play a greater role in sharing the many success stories you highlighted.

    You have many great points in your essay. Mine are just a few additional thoughts for your next blog based on 20 years of helping fellow veterans. I’m sure that if VA continues reaching out, as you do in your essay, then there will be more ideas to further improve VA.

    Thank you again.

    Best ~ Paul.

  11. Adam W. Dillon    

    I am at last a third generation United States veteran on both sides of my family, military and law enforcement. I have traced our military lineage as far back as the American Revolution. The term Veteran has a very special meaning meaning for our family, it is an elite brotherhood that makes the United States a very special place to live.

    Anyone that feels different of has any disrespectful discontent for United States Military Veterans has the right to feel that way. We, as Veterans, gladly laid our lives on the line to protect the very freedom to protect those rights. It is unfortunate that those feelings exist, but that is what makes America great, Freedom.

    It is also very unfortunate that there are Veterans suffering here on our home soil. No United States Military Veteran that served Honorably should ever have to go without in this country. I am one of those Veterans that was forgotten about and it does not feel very good. When a man wants to be a soldier his entire life and gives his country his best formative years, goes to combat, gets wounded and carries the scars being forgotten goes deep. A United States Military Veteran who served honorably should never have to be ashamed of the same. Maybe one day that recognition will come.

    This article is very interesting in that Veterans are sometimes given the same treatment by the VA as well. There should be a standard across the board for Veterans, a military standard. A wounded Veteran should not have to beg for services from the VA. An honorably discharged Veteran has already served the United States and is entitled to certain services by the VA. These services should be rendered without question or prejudice. When two Veterans from the same conflict with the exact same injuries and illnesses receive different disability compensations from the VA there is a breakdown in the system.

    Adam W. Dillon
    Former US Army
    Special Operations

    1. K. Breed    

      I can identify with that woman. I have often lamented over the fact that the Vendors at the “Canteens” not only in the medical facilities but also on bases/posts ect the prices are so hi that I can not afford even a bottle of water. I often eat crackers and condiments. Going to the med.facil. fasting and then having to wait up to 4 hrs for another appt. one gets hungry. I try to take something from home if I have it but if its towards the end of the month…PLEASE DONT GET ME WRONG IF IT WERENT FOR VA HEALTH CARE ID BE DEAD ALREADY. So THANK GOD for it. I’m just saying, give us a break doesn’t have to be fancy just healthy. And make it known to the general population so often I hear” How come no one ever told me about that.”

      GETTING OLD IS BETTER THAN THE ALTERNATIVE,
      A Viet nam Vet.

  12. robin temple    

    I must be one of those stereotypes. It took a sexual assault and then over three months imprisonment and forced haldol/lithium overdoses inflicted twice daily TO Make Me Admit I was Delusional….I Didn’t. I also didn’t get a rape kit Or Counseling…or a Counselor Or even a female doctor. Nor did I receive representation Or a phone call. Isolation and Grand Mal seizures from the double daily overdoses. That’s Torture. It took 15 years of inner turmoil and shame and the VA turned me away every time I asked. I finally got MS/PTSD rated and treatment. I also had to have an ovary removed. The VA sent me to day surgery. The doc removed a piece of my colon and sent me home. I died three days later. I have had over ten surgeries. My survival to date defies explanation. I have been malpracticed on by not one but TWO different doctors in connection with the Only VA hospital in the state of Maine. I AM HOMELESS. I HAD A HOUSE I COULDN’T LIVE IN OR SELL OR RENT DUE TO THE ECONOMY….AND IN ORDER TO SURVIVE NOW THAT I’M COMPLETELY HANDICAPPED…I HAD TO BE VERY CLOSE TO EMERGENCY MEDICAL PERSONNEL THAT ARE ACTUALLY QUALIFIED TO TREAT ME. I LIVE ON MEDICATION BUT NOTHING STOPS THE PAIN. I HAVE never Never! Received an apology or gotten anything OR ANYONE TO ACKNOWLEDGE THESE HORRORS. I WAS LIED TO AND NEGLECTED/OBSTRUCTED FROM GETTING ANY COMPENSATION EVER. ASK ME HOW I FEEL ABOUT YOUR..not my..GOVERNMENT. I WILL DIE not for MY country but BECAUSE OF IT.

    Sincerely
    YOUR enraged..homeless..mental..scarred..crippled..disfigured..suffering..Servant

    1. sonia    

      I’m so sorry they what they did to you.

  13. E L Smallwood    

    You won’t know how you’ll be responded to until you have a problem, seek help and while doing so you tell someone or they discover that you are a veteran. Of course, many Americans will do their best to help. But the truth is, as you point out, that some will not. It is also true that some veterans will not help, because like people who are not veterans, they sometimes feel that they can’t, because of their own problems. Unemployment of a good example to use. Too many resent the suggestion that veterans should be given any preference at all in hiring. It’s where we are in America now. There seems to be a terrible void of compassionate hearts because everyone thinks their problems are just as severe as the other person, veteran or not..

    Believe it or not, I recently had the experience of meeting a woman, inside of a VA facility near the hospital cafeteria, who asked me for a few dollars for food. Was she a veteran? Had she told someone in the facility that she was hungry? I didn’t even ask, I just did my best to help her. But I’m relating this story to you now because someone in the VA system needs to know that this type of neglect of veterans still happens, even within the VA system. I’m sure that you are aware that some honorably discharged veterans cannot join certain veteran organization because they did not serve in the same war. A veteran is a veteran if he/she served this country. Period. We need to stop discriminating against our own.

    Service to your country does not stop when you leave the military. Our service continues until the Good Lord calls us home.

    God bless you!

    E.L.Smallwood, Member
    Air Force Sergeants Association

  14. Teddy J Martin    

    I’ve heard even members of my own church state that..”we should not have any of our military on foreign soil”. I asked that person, where would we be if everyone had thought that way in our previous wars?

    1. Michael Hale    

      Agreed. We wouldn’t have any soil of our own so there would be no “foreign” soil… 🙂

      1. Sgt. Laura Brooks    

        YES!! I hate the idea of…”Bring ’em all home forever”….seems so sweet, but in actuality is totally ridiculous. No one wants war, but we must sustain a constant presence in many parts of the world in oder to keep the peace. Hello?!?!?
        =D

  15. Tammy    

    Very well said!!!! As a Desert Storm/Shield Veteran myself and on behalf of my late Father a Korean Conflict Veteran, Thank you

  16. Stan Lukas    

    Well written, Captain! You’re preaching to the choir in my case. I completely agree with what you have told us in your post. I am a combat wounded Vietnam Veteran, a former Marine. I haven’t heard these descriptors recently, but not too many years ago, news articles in papers and magazines, and newscasts on radio and television often began with “A crazed Vietnam vet…” to describe the misdeeds of a veteran. A non-vet charged with a violation of the law would not be so described.

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