It’s often the first thing I hear when I meet a veteran and introduce myself as a reporter. “Why does the media only focus on the bad stuff?”
When they say “the bad stuff,” they usually mean post-traumatic stress disorder.
Those conversations don’t usually make it into my stories — which often do feature veterans with PTSD. So, now, three versions of the “bad stuff” conversations that I had on a recent reporting trip to Los Angeles.
The first conversation was with Josh Jacobs, a student in the University of Southern California’s business school and the president of the university’s Veterans Association. He served in Afghanistan as a Marine Corps officer. We talked a long time about what student veterans need to be successful in higher education. Like so many students we hear from, Josh is tired of seeing struggling student veterans getting slapped with what he calls “the PTSD sticker.”
But then he described a typical (male) student veteran experience he’s seen at Southern Cal:
“He’s moved out of his place, he’s at a premier university, he hasn’t been in school for years. On top of that, he just got out of the military and has no idea how to associate with anybody else who is four or six years younger then him.
“And on top of that, his finances are fluctuating, he has no idea when he’s going to get paid and class starts. And then we just [give them] a little sticker: PTSD. Like, that’s what he’s got. Really? I want to see somebody try to deal with half of this crap — independent of being a veteran. It’s impossible! It’s so easy to label what you don’t understand.”
The moral of Jacobs’ story goes beyond the student veteran experience. The transition home for any veteran is a jumble of logistics, paperwork and just trying to get both feet back on the ground.
Anthony Hassan, a retired Air Force officer and head of Southern Cal’s Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families, told me he’s fine with the focus on PTSD so long as it doesn’t distract from the myriad of other critical transition issues:
“Everyone wants to talk about post-traumatic stress and [traumatic brain injury]. I want to talk about the other problems. I want to talk about the unemployment, about the marital problems. I want to talk about the isolation and the sense of no purpose and no mission anymore in life.
“I want to be able to talk about the connectedness that they have or don’t have with their community. I want to talk about the community’s lack of capacity. I want to talk about the coordination of care, about civilians understanding and embracing returning veterans and their families in their community.
“Don’t get me wrong, I think post-traumatic stress disorder is a terrible thing and many of them are coming back afflicted with it. But going back to military culture, we can’t make the assumption that everybody is a trigger puller and everybody is going to have post-traumatic stress or that those who didn’t pull a trigger aren’t going to have post-traumatic stress.”
Hassan’s point is that families, doctors, schools and other service providers can’t know precisely what life challenges a veteran will face when they come home, but they need to be prepared for there to be challenges that don’t simply stem from one health condition.
But you can’t help a veteran who doesn’t ask for it. That was a problem for Ian Smith of Pasadena, Calif., a former infantryman who left the Marines in 2005 after two combat deployments to Iraq. He’s a student now at California State University, Northridge. At first, he told me, he just kept his head down. He saw how the media portrayed struggling veterans and he didn’t relate:
“There is this sort of public perception of who or what a veteran is and none of that fit with who I think or thought I was. And so my default was just to stay in the shadows. And I come to find out that that’s the larger default.
“Of the 600-700 veterans that are enrolled at [our university] — we’re ecstatic if we have 20 or 30 show up at any given event. We just know, based on numbers, that most veterans are choosing not to self-identify. You look at other examples of what are called veterans and if you don’t identify with that then, yeah, your default is to stay in the closet.”
>> We’re doing our veterans coverage the Public Insight Network way, which means if you are a veteran we’d love to hear from you on this and other veterans issues.
We’ve collected our questions for veterans in a single post called “Veterans: Help improve our reporting on veterans” — we’d be glad to hear from you.