Posted June 21, 2012

By Danielle Psimas & Ian Crawford, ServiceNation

You’ve seen the video on the 24-hour news channels or online:  A returning soldier walks off the plane, eyes searching. At the sight of his family, he launches into a sprint and collides with them in a flurry of tearful hugs and kisses. It’s a stirring sight, and it’s hard for Americans not to feel a welling of emotions, as a family reunites after a year or more of painful separation. But how many of us in the civilian world understand the transition that follows for the soldier and the family?

A nationwide survey, entitled “A New Generation of Leaders,” looked at Americans’ perceptions about service members returning from battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. It found that most Americans view veterans as highly valued civic assets. It also found that many civilians still have many misperceptions about the transitional phase veterans and their families experience after the service member comes home.

The study was commissioned by The Mission Continues, a nonprofit organization started by, run, and working with new veterans, and Bad Robot, the film and television production company formed by writer-producer-director J.J. Abrams.  Both Bad Robot and The Mission Continues are charter members of the Got Your 6 campaign, and this study demonstrates one of the many things that collaboration across sectors can accomplish. The polling was done by the bipartisan team of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and Public Opinion Strategies. You can find the full report here

88 percent of those surveyed viewed members of America’s armed forces who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a valuable national asset, running neck-and-neck with physicians (87 percent). Only firefighters (94 percent), nurses (91 percent) were ranked higher. Veterans ranked much higher than lawyers, politicians, celebrities, and even justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. But that below that bright line linger some strong misperceptions about the men and women hanging up the nation’s uniform after serving in the military.

In terms of mental health, for instance, more than half of the respondents to the poll said they believed a majority of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Multiple studies by the Department of Veterans Affairs and an independent 2008 study by the Rand Corporation found put the percentage of veterans diagnosed with PTSD between 11 and 20 percent.

Perhaps even more troubling is a lack of recognition by civilians about veterans’ desire to continue serving their nation and their communities. The study report notes:

Only half (46 percent) believe, “Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have proven their leadership and skill overseas and should play a major role leading and serving their communities here at home.”  Another 43 percent believe, “Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have served honorably, but given their stress and sacrifice, they should be allowed time to recover and other people should lead.”  Young people (55 percent second statement) in particular argue these men and women should be allowed time to recover and other people should lead.

In actuality, the 2.4 million veterans that have returned since 9/11 are ready and willing to continue their civic service and leadership in their communities. They have extensive leadership experience, and higher average levels of education than the civilian population.

Eric Greitens, the CEO of The Mission Continues and a former Navy SEAL, said, “Our veterans appreciate when people say thank you. But in addition to thank you, they need to hear “we still need you.” They need to know that when we look at them we see them as assets in strengthening their communities and that we are willing to challenge them to find a way to continue to be of service.”

We are a long way as a society from a true picture of America’s fighting forces, both during and after the time they deploy to a combat zone. These men and women volunteered—made a conscious, deliberate decision—to seek out a way to serve a greater good, to “pick up a weapon and stand a post,” to use Jack Nicholson’s line from A Few Good Men. No one forced them to do it. They weren’t drafted, trapped into a period of forced servitude and counting down to their discharge like a convict sweating out a prison sentence.

Bad Robot founder and president J.J. Abrams, who created TV’s “Alias” and currently helms the new “Star Trek” series of motion pictures, said, “Bad Robot is proud to partner with The Mission Continues to help advance our understanding of this newest generation of veterans. Our country needs their stories, expertise, service, and leadership now more than ever. We look forward,” Abrams said, “to continuing to work with The Mission Continues and others to ensure our nation’s veterans have a strong network upon their return home.”

Those men and women are coming home with incredible skills and leadership abilities that are quite literally “battle-tested.” They want to continue to use those skills and abilities to serve their country and their hometowns, and, as civilians, we are wasting a valuable resource and a juggernaut force for good, if we fail to recognize this and to extend a hand to say, “Thank you for what you’ve done, and thank you for extending your hand to me, as we both work to make our common home, our America, a stronger, richer, and more positive place.

Consider this your challenge, America. A challenge to support the community of soldiers and their families, to educate yourself on the realities of the post-military transition, and to view veterans’ not as charity cases, but as capable colleagues and community members with whom you work and serve.