It's Time for Veterans and Civilians to Really Get to Know Each Other

Capt. Christopher Phillips meets with children of active-duty sailors at a kids camp designed to show what deployment is like. Many in the military community say the challenges service members and their families face aren’t well understood. Capt. Christopher Phillips meets with children of active-duty sailors at a kids camp designed to show what deployment is like. Many in the military community say the challenges service members and their families face aren’t well understood. Defense Department

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.”

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.