Why Veterans Need To Chill When It Comes To Civilians Awkwardly Trying To Understand Us

By Jay Kirell


The more I’ve read about veteran-related issues in the media, specifically those connecting violence and other unlawful behavior with combat trauma experienced in war, the more I’ve observed two specific groups of people emerge.

The authors, and every veteran and veteran-supporter who now hates them.

The debate over the New York Times opinion piece earlier in the week unleashed a torrent of pushback from veterans across social media.  Many called it an example of the media once again slandering veterans as all racist, or easily duped, or those diagnosed with PTSD as ticking time bombs.  The connections journalists or non-veteran authors try to make between war and home-grown extremism are oftentimes based on flimsy evidence.  This latest op/ed was no different in the minds of many veterans.

To non-veterans, the piece might have been eye-opening and worthy of further thought and debate.  Which is obviously what the editorial staff at the Times thought, obviously, since they ran the piece.

Unfortunately, what could otherwise be a worthy discussion about both extremism and post-combat trauma in active-duty personnel, as well as among veterans will not spring from this week’s article, since most veterans I’ve observed were outraged the piece was even printed in the first place.

Shame, because this country needs a discussion to take place between veterans and civilians.  A discussion about the after-effects of war and what we really asked our men and women to do halfway across the world.  A discussion about who we encouraged to join and what we were willing to overlook in the entry process in order to meet recruiting goals.  A discussion about where the fingers really need to be pointed after the latest violent tragedy involves a veteran.

And speaking as a veteran, a combat veteran, and a combat veteran diagnosed with PTSD, that discussion will never begin until veterans stop becoming outraged over every awkward attempt by civilians to understand us.

Some will make assumptions or connections based on statistics and data.  Some will base their understanding on stories they heard.  Some will just flat-out form opinions based on ignorance and fear.  Veterans of all types will get lumped together for analysis and comment and people will go on living their lives not really understanding but having made up their minds.

Kind of like how the media and public reacted to and treated Muslims after 911, except today veterans aren’t expected to apologize and express remorse when a fellow veteran commits an act of violence.  Vets aren’t expected to denounce the actions of other veterans.  In that respect, we’re given the benefit of a doubt many others aren’t.

However, we are expected to think of ourselves as a pseudo-collective, part of a larger brotherhood or sisterhood of individuals who came together for a common purpose and must be defending against from slander and unsupported evidentiary conclusions because…we’re super fragile?

Inevitably when the issue of veterans and unseemly violent acts comes up the hatches begin being battered-down.  The urge to defend fellow vets from anything that may seem like a broad-brush assumption is understandable, but misguided.  It ends up shutting down discussion, turns off people from writing about veterans issues for fear of being called insensitive.

Some veterans will never accept stories that connect violent extremism with military service which come from authors who’ve never served.  Others will tune out at any notion that the military might have a problem with racism or sexism because they never witnessed any themselves.  Others just believe the media hates war, hates veterans, and looks for any opportunity to make them look bad.

All leave the general public no closer to bridging the civilian-veteran divide.  No closer to understanding each other.  No closer to ending the feeling that a nationwide dialog about violent veterans ends up being a discussion that takes place with civilians amongst civilians and veterans amongst veterans.

And no matter what side of the divide you’re on, that sort of tribalism helps no one.


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