Did you kill anyone over there?”
Remarkably, some civilians still ask that of veterans and military service members they don’t know, says Laura L’Esperance, vice president of brand and communications at The Mission Continues, a nonprofit group that awards community service fellowships to post-9/11 veterans nationwide. “People don’t know how to react. They say stupid things.”
The question, while an extreme example of an awkward civilian-military exchange, captures the yawning gulf between two of America’s populations: those who have served and those who have not. The military community calls them the 1 percent and the 99 percent.
The cultural chasm started growing in the latter half of the 20th century, and widened during the Vietnam War. Post-9/11 vets don’t have to endure getting criticized when they return from war, like some Vietnam vets did, but the men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan still feel profoundly isolated from a country that reveres them, but often does not appreciate their experiences and sacrifices, or the hardships on their families.
“We’ve had a very small group of people involved in fighting these wars,” says M. David Rudd, provost at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, and a psychologist who served in the Army for nearly five years. “It’s not just deployments, it’s relocations. The frequency of those, and the impact on individual service members, I’m not sure it’s well understood.” The military culture’s insularity, structure and idiosyncrasies, coupled with the fact that many Americans don’t personally know anyone serving, reinforce resentment and frustration on one side of the divide; on the other, there’s ignorance and even condescension. “If we have no personal relationships with those who are fighting our war, then we think of the war as a geopolitical drama, and we think of those fighting it as heroic action figures, or perhaps as victims, but also less as real lives with real dreams at real risk,” writes historian James Wright in Those Who Have Borne the Battle (PublicAffairs, 2012).
Government officials have worried about the growing military-civilian divide, especially in recent years. “Our work is appreciated, of that I am certain. There isn’t a town or a city I visit where people do not convey to me their great pride in what we do,” Adm. Mike Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a 2011 commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. “But I fear they do not know us. I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle.”
Joint community service and disaster relief projects offer one avenue for vets and civilians to get better acquainted. Defense and the Veterans Affairs Department are collaborating more with nongovernmental organizations because the real gap is at the local level, says Kristina Kaufmann, executive director at Code of Support, an organization aimed at bridging the military-civilian divide. Inside the Beltway, people tend to understand service members’ challenges better from both a policy and personal perspective, because so much of the military population lives and works nearby. That makes groups like The Mission Continues and Team Rubicon—another nonprofit that puts vets to work in local communities—valuable, Kaufmann says.
Team Rubicon, co-founded in 2010 by a former fellow of The Mission Continues, deploys veterans to disasters worldwide to work alongside emergency responders. Volunteers helped with relief and recovery in the aftermath of the 2013 tornadoes in Oklahoma, Hurricane Sandy along the East Coast in 2012 and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. L’Esperance says the goal is to deliver the same type of service experience vets had during active duty to help them heal, while bringing them closer to civilian communities.
The Obama administration, through the Corporation of National and Community Service, also is pushing more public-private partnerships that elevate and increase volunteerism. One of the initiatives is focused on supporting vets and military families, and tapping their unique skills to help the wider civilian community tackle challenges ranging from disasters to mentoring at-risk youth.
Kaufmann, an advocate for military families whose husband served Army tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, also credits Mullen and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki with trying to create a stronger connection between the military and civilian worlds. VA led a series of mental health forums at 152 centers nationwide this summer to engage and educate communities. In June, the White House hosted its highly touted mental health summit to highlight support for vets and their families. Kaufmann has been vocal about preventing suicides in the military and eliminating bureaucratic obstacles and attitudes affecting the health and well-being of vets and their families. She also is familiar with the civilian way of thinking: A native of New Rochelle, N.Y., and a graduate of the University of California Berkeley, Kaufmann says she knew nothing about the military before she married. At first, she says, she was “freaked out by seeing uniforms all of the time.”
The military has a “we take care of our own” mentality, which has reinforced the military-civilian disconnect, according to Kaufmann. Still, the challenges facing the military community are not just the government’s problem, she says. “As both a military spouse and an American in general, what are we talking about when we say ‘our own?’ ” she asks. “Aren’t we part of America?”
America’s all-volunteer force, now more diverse than it’s ever been, still is largely white and male, according to a 2011 Defense Department demographics report. Enlisted personnel are more educated than in previous generations, and increasingly hail from rural communities outside the Northeast’s urban centers. They often marry and have families at a younger age than the average American, and most are not considered rich.
The 99 percent consider these 20-somethings heroes, bestowing sometimes perfunctory displays of gratitude. It’s a well-meaning routine that has become somewhat inauthentic. “They are very humbled by the fact that the public responds to them,” says L’Esperance, who left a career in corporate communications on Wall Street to work at The Mission Continues. “But they don’t like the stereotypes.” Some vets, for example, leave military service off their resumes, she says, because they don’t want people thinking they have post-traumatic stress disorder. Many aren’t interested in the hero label, she says, and “just want to be a normal person again.”