As the military begins to reduce the size of its force after hard campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, communities like ours will begin to see a growing population of experienced veterans returning home. Our veterans of these conflicts have served with distinction on the battlefield and deserve a chance to begin their new life with the support of their neighbors. After more than a decade of yellow ribbons, eager strangers saying “thank you for your service” and car magnets reading “support the troops,” it is now time for us to see if we really meant it.
Growing up among veterans of the Greatest Generation showed me what is expected of a veteran after taking off the uniform. A veteran is a stronger person for having served, not weakened because of it. A veteran has the courage and integrity to make the right choices in every situation, even in instances where there is moral ambiguity. A veteran does not tarnish his or her honor by submitting to the temptation of the “easy, wrong choice,” and is strong enough in their character to make the “hard, right decision.”
A veteran lives a higher standard of citizenship and is always an example for others to look up to — this is how most of us looked up to the veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, many of whom did not have the choice to serve like we do today.
I am a member of the newest generation of veterans. I’m currently an active duty commander watching many of my friends and subordinates transition back into civilian life. I am keenly aware of the tribulations they have and will face, especially the internal struggles that multiple combat deployments create.
But even the horrors of war are no excuse to be treated differently from the citizenry. There are prevalent resources available for veterans dealing with these issues provided by the public and private sectors; all a veteran needs to do is ask for assistance.
I have overcome personal issues and use this adage to encourage others to seek help on their own, before they resort to self-medication or get caught up in criminal activities: “I have been on hundreds of missions all over Iraq, but the longest drive was to the clinic. I have been dismounted in some very bad parts of Ramadi and Baghdad, but the longest walk was from that parking lot to the front desk to admit I needed to talk with someone.”
Recently, the Sixth Judicial Circuit of Pinellas and Pasco counties unveiled a new program, a “veterans court.” Although the spirit of the circuit and all parties involved is a kind gesture meant to bring additional resources to the individual, I believe this sends the wrong message to the public about who our veterans are. This program further amplifies the idea that our veterans should be pitied as victims because of their service in combat by distorting justice. This distortion is based solely on their status as a veteran. We should not give veterans special or preferential treatment in the eyes of the law.
This idea may shock many readers, but it is a necessary revelation for a community such as ours to capitalize on the experience of these fine men and women. Each branch of service has similar codes of conduct, ethos and expectations of their personnel that become ingrained in each service member; the community must expect these values to remain in our veterans. Three of these important values that are common to each branch are honor, integrity and courage.
There must be a conscious choice made in our communities to hold our veterans in high esteem without feeling that they are owed regular special treatment or are victims of their service. We should hold our veterans to a higher standard of citizenship; the only victim will be our community if we begin to treat veterans with preference over others.
We have an opportunity right now to capitalize on a great resource in these experienced men and women, many of them with proven exceptional leadership abilities, to transform our community and inspire the next generation. But we will miss the mark completely if we fail to change our collective attitudes, mind-set and the way we approach them. Set higher expectations for veterans and we will exceed them; we have already proven it in much more difficult circumstances.
Erik Anthes, a Pasco County native and 2004 graduate of River Ridge High School, is company commander, Company E, 1/16 Infantry, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Fort Riley, Kan.