“The only people who understand veterans are other veterans, and they all hate each other.”
Veterans kill themselves at the rate of 22 every day, and what does the veteran community do about it? Encourage more of it.
My dad, a retired Army Sergeant Major, likes to tell an old-school (AKA sexist) joke: “The only people who understand women are other women. And they all hate each other.” I’ve probably heard that and his other four jokes a hundred times and they weren’t even funny the first time. But what happens if we change a word in that “joke?” Let’s swap out “women” for “veterans.”
“The only people who understand veterans are other veterans. And they all hate each other.” Is that statement true? Of course not, but you wouldn’t know it from some of the things going up on social networking sites recently. Vets are the only people who understand other vets, and yet, military-focused communities online can be incredibly vicious.
To begin with, the pages of online veterans’ blogs and websites are filled with hateful, divisive commentary denigrating the ‘other’ among the services and occupational specialties. There is of course light-hearted banter and competition among branches and services, as well as the usual gallows/barracks/locker room humor that is tacitly accepted as part of military culture. But vile insults and ad hominem attacks, even rape threats, are so prevalent that it makes sense that veterans can be negatively impacted by interactions online.
When the online dogpile starts, vets seeking a connection with other vets online are either pulled into the fray by defending themselves or choose to lash out at others, or don’t join the conversation at all because they’re turned off by it.
Many probably don’t feel comfortable sharing their experiences because they are “just” Air Force, or supply, or “never left the wire,” or God forbid they are a woman. There is a pervasive sense that POGs and Fobbits and REMFs need not weigh in because they can’t possibly understand what it’s like to really know the struggle. That cuts off a primary (and for some, only) support network for veterans: other veterans.
We, veterans, make up a small percentage of the U.S. population. Our experiences, though varied based on factors such as branch, MOS, and deployment history, set us apart from civilians. Regardless of motivations to join the military, when we raise our right hand and don the uniform, we all agreed to kill and if necessary die for our country. And when the time comes to make good on that promise, it really comes down to dying and killing for the service member in the foxhole with us, regardless of any other factors than that we are on the same team.
So why do we not take that sense of camaraderie and esprit de corps home with us? Why do we have to constantly be on guard, bracing to defend ourselves against our own kind? Or beating them to the punch by putting them down and making them feel unworthy to be a member of our sacred community? Since when does “pride” come at the expense of other veterans’ dignity? Aren’t we supposed to be in this together? Why are veterans cannibalizing each other online?
There are real veterans—real people—with real feelings on the receiving end of every comment we make. We tell each other to man up, or not to be ‘butt-hurt’ by rude remarks. But what if the person on the other side of the country to whom that admonition is directed has entered the conversation, desperate for a connection with the only people he feels can empathize with his experiences? And he just needs validation that we are there for each other and that we’ve got each other’s six…
So yes, we veterans are a small portion of the U.S. population. But the line that separates us from civilians has NOTHING on the lines that divide us amongst ourselves. These divisions are exacerbated by our own behavior. And then we goad and shame other veterans, shifting the blame to the targets to absolve ourselves of any blame that could come from the harassment. We need to do better.
Would it help if we defined the specific problem? The problem is that veterans who can’t find a safe outlet for their anxieties and concerns, even among their peers, are choosing to end their lives. THAT is the problem. And we should do ourselves as a community a favor and step back, reach down deep, and come up with some empathy.
Yes, we have a reputation as tough warriors who can’t be bogged down by feelings. But that is how we handle our enemies. Our brothers and sisters in arms deserve better. They deserve the understanding that can only come from those of us who have experienced what they have, or at least have the frame of reference to do so.