by Chris Watson
An old man, age spotted hands holding a cheap American flag, eyes at a parade. A disheveled man sitting near the downtown bus terminal, dirty hands clenching a sign scrawled in shaky handwriting “Homeless – Veteran – Please Help”. Kansas Senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole clutching a pen in his right hand and shaking hands on a campaign rope line with his left. These are the images I had, and often still do, of “veterans”. Until, in 1991 at age 29, I became one.
The United States has 21.8 million veterans, over ten percent of them women. That means that every 14th person you meet in your day to day life has served in the military. Visit any large commercial restaurant on a busy night and at least one veteran will be working and probably seven or eight eating.
But we don’t know who they are. More accurately, we can not tell. Unless it is a national holiday or we sadly attend a funeral with a casket draped in a flag how could we know? Veterans are our neighbors, bankers, car mechanics, and many others you meet daily. What veterans are not is visible.
Veteran unemployment is twice the national average. One in three of those deployed in recent military actions suffer from some kind of traumatic mental health issue. Statistics on the homeless are elusive but sources agree that nearly one third of all homeless are veterans.
The reason for this quiet, blind eye is two fold. Veterans don’t, in general, want to be different. Special treatment can draw pointing and staring. Civilians often downplay what we ask our veterans to do. No one, veteran or civilian, wants to think about war. Our veterans, especially our injured, unemployed, and homeless veterans, are a stark reminder of the currency of freedom.
On this Veterans Day we will all encounter veterans. Most will likely go unrecognized. They will not wear a badge, medal, hat, or sign. In fact most will go out of their way to be unnoticed. What should never be neglected is the care that many of these servants of our country require. That should always be a part of our national discourse.
Chris Watson USN Submarine Force, 1983-1991