Shifting the Focus: Supporting the Troops Takes More Than a Salute

Tucked in a corner on Plains Road in New Paltz, dozens of concrete headstones and miniature American flags line the graves of the Ulster County Veterans Cemetery to memorialize soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty. On Veteran’s Day we honor their heroism and unwavering patriotism with parades, social media posts and inspiring speeches on valour.

It is rooted in American ideology to honor our active military and veterans. When in a public space, we stand up and applaud for a person in uniform, honoring their heroism. There is nothing more American than respectfully removing your hat and giving tribute to a soldier right before a ballgame at Yankee Stadium. 

But when the line of duty has passed, it’s easy to let our heroes’ actions fade into obscurity. The sad reality is that veterans are often given more respect in death than they can hope for in life.  

The term “support our troops” has taken on a new, counterintuitive meaning. “Supporting our troops” has become associated with coat drives for homeless veterans and lectures about high suicide rates among veterans. 

The epidemic of homelessness and suicide among veterans is seemingly comparable to the opioid epidemic. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV), of the homeless adult population, 11% are veterans and 20% of the male homeless population are veterans. 

The national organization 22 Until None calls attention to the 22 veterans who commit suicide a day. According to statistics gathered by the organization, people are 200% more likely to commit suicide after military service, and subsequently one in five suicide deaths is a veteran. 

How is it that we glorify active soldiers in media and promote recruiting advertisements, yet turn our backs to their needs after duty? And what does it say about America that we allow our nation’s heroes to be left on the streets and in an intense state of depression?

We at The New Paltz Oracle are baffled by the hypocrisy of our nation’s values surrounding active military, to the actual upholding of these values when they return home. 

The physical and emotional trials soldiers are put through are incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t gone through the experience themselves. Intense physical endurance tests like ruck runs and obstacle courses are complete with your drill sergeant screaming in your face for the entire time. 

Perhaps the epicenter of mental and bodily torment is boot camp. Every day you are reminded that you are not human, but a maggot, a “turd.” The goal of boot camp is to break down their perception of themselves as civilians and mold them into obedient soldiers. 

Considering the grueling experiences veterans have gone through and their subsequent vulnerability, one would think that we as a nation would focus our resources on uplifting them. But somehow along the way, our nation’s so-called heroes have slipped through the cracks and have been deprioritized in our country’s values. 

“We all like to think that everyone who joined the military is a hero but I think we are all trying to get by. Almost everyone that I was in training with did it because they have a family to look after, they want to pay for college, it was that or being on the streets,” said fourth-year journalism major Amanda Gordon, who served with the Airforce, including six months of active duty in Kuwait. 

The NCHV reports that 51% of homeless veterans have disabilities, 50% have serious mental illnesses and 70% have substance abuse problems. Additionally, roughly 45% of all homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 10.4% and 3.4% of the U.S. veteran population. 

We as a nation have, quite literally, ignored the most vulnerable communities merely because it is inconvenient. It is not part of our hegemonic culture to lend a helping hand to the disabled, to addicts and to veterans, but instead to truck on with the dominant “just get over it” attitude. Once soldiers have fulfilled their line of duty, our nation tosses them away and wipes their hands of them. 

The transition from military life to civilian life proves to be one of the most challenging and taxing experiences a veteran goes through. With modern transportation, soldiers may be shipped out from a confined military base in a potential war-zone to the bustling streets of New York City within a day. 

The sudden switch is often a jarring and frightening experience for someone conditioned to survive in a structured and stressful environment for months at a time. A lot of veterans return home with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, making that transition significantly more difficult.  

“When I first got home from deployment, I didn’t want to interact with civilians. I didn’t know how to,” Gordan explained. “There’s such a huge disconnect between military and civilian life. When you don’t have people who’ve gone through the same experiences, you feel crazy.” 

According to Jerry Wimberly, the New York Chapter President of 22 Until None, isolation is the major factor that contributes to the high homelessness and suicide rates among veterans. Despite the obvious trials soldiers face while in the military, they are surrounded by people all sharing the same experience. Once they get home, however, that sense of camaraderie is gone. 

To give credit where credit is due, significant progress has been made in supporting our veterans, specifically housing our nation’s homeless veterans. This is due, in large part, to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Supportive Services for Veteran Families program, which connects them with rapid re-housing, through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program.

On a more local scale, the SUNY New Paltz Office of Veteran & Military Service offers support for active military personnel, veterans and people with either spouses or parents in the military. They offer a number of services such as finding affordable housing, making sure they stay fed and arming them with the tools they need to enter the workforce. 

But clearly, more needs to be done on a federal and local level to support our nation’s heroes. People hang American flags outside their front stoop and slap “support our troops” bumper stickers on the back of their SUVs, yet they do not vote for lawmakers who will institute social programs. 

We at The Oracle call for lawmakers to implement more support systems and programs to uplift the veteran community, particularly during the adjustment from military life to civilian life. If there is a boot camp going into the military, there should be a “boot camp,” so to speak, to help with the transition period afterwards. 

Every day during active duty, soldiers undergo stressful events. Returning to civilian life should not be one of them. If we really want to honor our veterans for their service, the focus needs to be shifted towards supporting them during this crucial period, rather than merely mourning them after it’s too late.