The Veteran Identity

Photo by Jessica Radanavong

The military is a culture and society of its own. Serving in the military shapes every aspect of life: it is a separation from family, relinquishing the freedom to choose how to live. Serving in the military impacts every aspect of the self: they become a part of a branch, a division, a unit, one part of a whole. Serving means relinquishing liberty: being subject to a different and more rigid legal system than civilians.  

One telling point regarding transition from the military to civilian life is the use of the term separation. In the civilian world, we leave a job or profession; we retire, quit, get laid off or are fired. Active-duty personnel separate from the military; it is a strong word, meaning to break, detach, sever, divorce.  

The terminology is apt, though, as separation represents a much larger transition than moving from one profession to another. Though separation indicates a parting from their military identity, the experience shapes and stays with veterans their entire lives.  

Veterans are both everywhere and nowhere. They are a minority population with a distinct common culture. They are subject to distinct federal bureaucracies. They face unique physical and mental health issues. At times they speak a different language, both in terms of military lingo and through a host of acronyms regarding issues and services. But they cross all demographic and geographic lines and intersect with other distinct cultural groups as well.  

We will go more into veteran culture and identity in chapter 2.  

Coming Home

Veterans come home to communities, cities and towns throughout the US. Perhaps they return to a hometown, but often they transition to a new location close to their most recent stateside post, or close to a school, job, friends, or loved ones. They do not come home to the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). As such, it is incumbent on communities to provide resources in conjunction with federal, state, or veteran-specific entities.  

Too often, veterans and their families are referred to veteran-specific care that remains siloed from mainstream services. Veteran-specific resources are extremely valuable, providing culturally-informed care and expertise; they are not, nor should they be the sole or a separate community of veterans.  

After all, a veteran living in San Francisco is a San Franciscan and deserves a fair share of resources and recognition as both a resident and as a former service member. Therefore, civilian society must familiarize with the veteran experience and respond to their needs.

How does the VA play into this?

The VA is an indispensable provider of medical care and can deliver resources that no community-based provider alone can achieve. The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) provides world class medical care and partners with communities for housing, behavioral health, and social service supports. The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) provides pension and disability compensation, GI Bill benefits, and other resources.  

That said, and contrary to popular belief, VA services are not automatic or universally accessible. There are thresholds of eligibility for all benefits, from GI Bill to medical care and disability compensation. In more recent years, increases of bad paper discharges—especially discharges resulting from behavioral infractions that are related to military trauma—and their impact on eligibility bring to light the major issues of VA eligibility and access.

Further, only half of the nation’s veterans receive care from the VA. That means that while most of the public assumes veterans are taken care of by the VA, the truth is veterans are in our communities and often receiving care from non-veteran specific providers.  

Much of the care and research that the VA provides is the result of decades of veteran advocacy. Recent public attention to wait times for appointments and care at certain VA medical centers has shifted the narrative from increasing needed care at the VA to stripping care by moving much of the VA’s resources to the community.  

Veteran advocacy groups have taken up the charge to protect VA care, but as history proves, this is yet another example of veterans having to fight for their fair share.    

How do community organizations play into this?

The myth of comprehensive care has unintended consequences. Community services may refer veterans out of local resources in a mistaken belief that the individual is eligible for VA care. In many cases, the veteran is eligible but may need assistance establishing that eligibility. In others, that care is rationed due to eligibility constraints, or the veteran is ineligible altogether.  

And in all cases, veteran status should not preclude community entities from serving veterans. In the best case, community-based organizations, veteran organizations, and the VA work in tandem to provide veterans and their families with the full spectrum of care, supports, services and opportunities.

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