If you attend Memorial Day festivities this week, you might think that all of the veterans in this country are over the age of fifty and served in the Vietnam War.
Millennials and Post 9/11 veterans are underrepresented in every major veterans organization that I’ve ever seen, except for those specifically designed for young and student veterans. The second-largest group of veterans in the country are millennials, but because of our differences, we rarely fit in with the older veterans groups.
Most millenial veterans, for instance, are gamers. They’re more likely than previous generations to be pro-LGBT rights, and many of us served with openly gay service members (or, in my case, served openly after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”) In fact, it was an Iraq War Veteran, Patrick Murphy, who championed the bill in congress that finally repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and he did it in dedication to a gay man he had served, fought and bled with in Iraq.
Millennial veterans tend to be more Democratic, racially diverse and liberal than previous generations. Women make up a larger portion of our numbers and many of us served alongside women in combat. War and service, for us, was a co-ed experience. Women make up a greater number of those with combat-related injuries and post-traumatic stress than any previous generation – and those women veterans often face unique struggles and stigma in civilian society.
Pew Research did an excellent study in 2011 that found only 44% of Post 9/11 veterans believe that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were worth it – an astounding number when you consider we were the ones who were asked to fight those wars again and again. We’re not ashamed, though – we did our duty to the country and 96% of us are proud of our service.
Post 9/11 veterans have also faced double or more the burden of any previous generation that went to war, because the Bush administration knew the public would turn against them if they called a draft. If you listen to Vietnam War veterans talk about their service, many served a period of 2-3 years. If they had two deployments, it was a lot. When someone says, “I did three tours,” you’ll hear other Vietnam War veterans whistle. For those who served in World War II, it was almost impossible to do more than a few tours, because the war was shorter. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are still technically going on, 16 years later.
Post 9/11 veterans were forced to serve for longer periods of time and deploy more often, with less time in-between deployments. The lack of a draft meant the government did everything it could to threaten, cajole, bribe and even coerce those serving to stay in, sometimes even making it illegal to leave at the end of their service.
The infamous stop-loss policy of the Bush administration essentially allowed the government to send people back out to the battlefield right after returning, dashing their hopes of spending time with family and ruining their ability to recuperate. Even if someone was scheduled to be discharged, the administration would often send them back out to war for nine more months and tell them they couldn’t discharge from the service until their tour was over with. Some folks were stop-lossed multiple times in a row in order to keep them from leaving.
Even in my own experience in the Navy, I was deployed seven times in four years. After training, I spent my entire term of service overseas, with only a month of leave ever spent back home. Many Afghanistan and Iraq veterans served more than four years. It’s common to hear about Afghanistan and Iraq veterans that spent 5 or more years in the warzone – sometimes deploying six or more times. No generation of servicemembers has been so worn out by war and our rates of post-traumatic stress are nearly double those of similar returning veterans from previous eras.
All of these contribute to the most isolated group of veterans in our nation’s history. Only one half of one percent of the adult public served in the Post 9/11 period. Most American families had no skin the game, which is part of why these wars continue to go on indefinitely. This has created new problems, as politicians and leaders often fail to address the unique challenges faced by millennial veterans. While it’s easy to find politicians who will wave the flag and say they care about veterans, it’s hard to find a single one who has any specific policy ideas as to how to help my generation.
Some groups, like the national Democratic group VoteVets, are trying to change that by supporting veterans that run for office at the local, state and national level. The number of veterans in public office has been on a steady decline, making groups like VoteVets even more important. For instance, here in Dearborn, we don’t have a single veteran representing us at the local, county or state level. The only veteran who serves us in public office at all is our U.S. Senator, Gary Peters, who is a Post 9/11 veteran.
When you come out to the memorial day parade in Dearborn – just remember that those least likely to be marching are probably the ones most needing of help. Waving the flag is nice, but supporting our troops means a lot more than thanking people for their service or donating to a cause – it means knowing the unique struggle of Post 9/11 veterans and helping us ensure our service is not forgotten.
This post is written in dedication to Andrew Golen, a Dearborn resident, graduate of Dearborn High and kind soul who passed away due to health complications related to his service in the US Navy. He was a post 9/11 veteran who is remembered fondly by those of us who had the honor of knowing him. May he rest in peace.