Welcome Back: Adjusting to Civilian Life after Military Service
Our country celebrates Veteran’s Day each year, but how many people are really aware of the issues that veterans face upon return from their service? How can we make sense of those issues sociologically so that we can see how military service affects people and society?
The time and place in which people do their military service affects their process of readjustment. If one serves in combat and during war time, their experience will be different than someone who did not experience combat or served during peacetime.
Veterans have access to some nice benefits once they return from combat, although how nice they can be depends on where and when they receive their benefits. The G.I. Bill, first given to vets after World War II, was quite generous. Initially it involved educational support, home buying leverage, and one year of unemployment compensation. The benefits changed periodically over the years, benefits extended to both wartime and peacetime vets in the early seventies, eroding in the late seventies, and then were enhanced post 9/11.
I joined the Air Force many years ago, just before the generous educational benefits were phased out. This made college attainable for me. The year after I joined, the educational benefits required that one make a contribution that the government would then match. I remember people talking about those who joined after the benefits had changed, most insinuating that they were going to be less educated since no one could really afford to contribute to a college fund, especially considering the low level of pay we received.
The societal impact of the WWII G.I. Bill is well documented; they helped fuel the growth of the suburbs and our economy, since many veterans went to college and started businesses. That all veterans were eligible but that some were not able to use their benefits is less well known. African American veterans were not often able to get home loans since the areas in which they could or would buy a home were often restricted by race.
Consider that the distinction between peacetime and wartime is less clear as many soldiers face combat situations even in peacetime. What is it like when someone who experienced combat return to civilian life?
The Vietnam-era veterans are the best studied, and recent research on how Iraq-era Veterans readjust to civilian life uses them as a comparison group. While the Vietnam War was more visible in the media and much more unpopular the issues Vietnam vets and the Iraq/Afghanistan War veterans face are very similar.
Most of the research focuses on Post-Traumatic Stress symptoms or Disorder (PTSD). They have found that a majority of Vietnam Veterans have experienced PTSD, with “four out of five reporting recent symptoms when interviewed 20-25 years after Vietnam.”
Another recent study comparing veterans from both eras found that women from the more current wars, although technically still barred from combat positions (and pay), have more “exposure” to combat than earlier generations of female soldiers and thus suffer from PTSD just like their male counterparts do. Attention is being paid to how PTSD affects family life although it is unclear what that translates to in policy terms.
Additionally, a recent study on homelessness documents that while veterans comprise 9 percent of the general population, they make up 15 percent of the homeless population. Their findings also indicate that homeless veterans are more likely to be homeless for a longer period of time than non-veterans.
Looking specifically at veterans who attend college upon their return, a recent dissertation found that those who stay in college have more social support and a sense of fitting in – and that those who experienced combat often have less social support and do not feel like they fit in.
A veteran who has social support and a sense of community will adjust better to civilian life after serving in combat. When a group of people have unique experiences that set them apart from others, as the military experiences does, especially when combat is involved, having social solidarity becomes paramount when life situations change. Without the total institution of the military guiding and supporting your life, a veteran can feel very isolated. These experiences are very related to concepts from Émile Durkheim’s functionalist theory, For society to maintain its equilibrium as veterans return to civilian life, it is paramount that they be extended the support both socially and organizationally.
Will we be able to do the same with our current veterans? If not, what will be the cost to and impact on society?