By Stacy Bare
Best Defense bureau of veterans' affairs
There is no easy way to discuss the issue of veteran entitlement in America. It is a sensitive topic and that there are those veterans among us who have an issue with what entitlement is, perhaps a natural reaction. It is also a reaction that our strategic leadership should have foreseen. When you are part of the 1 percent who serves repeatedly and you come home to a country where most people are absorbed with Jersey Shore, the Karadashians, or Michael Vick's dog trial but can't find Afghanistan on a map nor pick out the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a lineup, it is easy to feel like society owes you something. That is, however, not why we choose to serve and is antithetical to the nature of service and duty.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, America was encouraged by our president to go back to the lives we were used to living. We were not asked to gird ourselves for sacrifice, for war, for men and women who would come home disconnected and misunderstood by their communities; at worst, broken and bruised emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Since then, the men and women who served our nation have come home to a country that had little understanding of the war or what the war had done to our minds and bodies. Since Korea, our veterans have deserved better, but America was not ready then, nor were they now, for the wars of the last 11 years.
America panicked, and rightly so; we did not want a repeat of what happened during and after Vietnam. America did something and a lot of it. Something, however, does not always equate to the right thing. In our attempt to heal, to be generous, and to be thankful to those who volunteered to serve, America inadvertently created a cadre of veterans for whom nothing would ever be good enough and at times dis-incentivized reintegration back home. Our country was good enough to go fight for, why isn't it good enough to come home to?
We've got a lot of work to do in this country: It isn't just veteran issues that need fixing, and veterans can and should take an active leadership role. For example, roughly 1,000 service members have lost an arm since we started the war in Afghanistan. An estimated 30,000 Americans will lose an arm this year alone. Here is our opportunity to be a hero, to be a real warrior even without our uniform, to be leaders in our communities. To embrace that challenge is a decision we as veterans have to make.
Our generation is easily the best supported generation of veterans since those of World War II. A lot of the something America has done is necessary, needed, and deeply appreciated. However, we have been nervous to say out loud that service alone should not guarantee free admission and the front of the line every time for every service member.
So what do we do?
We need to follow the examples of those veterans who have politely said "No ,thank tou" to the handouts and asked instead for a hand up, an opportunity to excel, a level playing field -- not free admission. We as veterans need to create a return on investment for the sacrifices and resources we're being given by a grateful nation and we need to stand beside America in the long hard work of creating a better future for younger generations, not just wait for free tickets to the next baseball game.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.