Send veterans to re-boot camp: Help soldiers in the painful transition back to civilian life

A soldier in combat fatigues sitting on the ground

 – We’ve felt the pain of transitioning back to “regular” life ourselves – and we know it can be rough

By Bob Kerrey and Pete Wikul

Just as they go to boot camp on the way in, American servicemen and women need re-boot camp on their way out of the service.

Boot camp, also known as basic training, has a purpose: Teaching young men and women the basics of military life. How to render a right-hand salute. How to march. How to obey the chain of command. How the Uniform Code of Military Justice differs from civil and criminal law.

And countless other serious and nonserious things as well.

It works. Even after a relatively short period of time, military personnel acquire the habits essential for success in the armed services. Some of these habits – paying attention to detail, acquiring a mission-oriented sense of urgency, dealing with personal deprivation, learning to lead and learning to follow – can be applied with great benefit in civilian life.

However, some, such as following orders and learning to live in an environment where individual choice is limited and where democratic decision-making is the exception rather than the rule, are not useful as a civilian.

We’ve felt the pain of transitioning back to “regular” life ourselves – and we know it can be rough.

In fact, most servicemen and women are woefully unprepared to re-enter civilian life. This is especially the case since most of the volunteers for our military received too little preparation in their schools to live successful lives as independent citizens.

The effects are sadly evident in the 185,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are out of work (nearly as many as the number currently deployed to those two countries). Veterans grapple with unemployment at rates higher than the general population.

Joblessness is just one problem. One-third of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are estimated to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or major depression. Suicides are on the rise, with an average of 18 veterans taking their lives each day.

Studies have established that Vietnam vets committed suicide at a rate far higher than the broader public. It would be a travesty if history repeats itself for those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is a vast disparity between the initial three to four month entry training and the military’s current one-week transition assistance program that concludes a member’s service in the armed forces.

With more than 300,000 troops completing their military service each year, we must come up with real solutions to this daunting crisis. Tax breaks, job fairs and seminars will not cut it.

What would a real reboot camp offer? Most important is a physical and psychological assessment of the soldier’s capacity to work. Posttraumatic stress disorder remains a great barrier to a successful transition.

Immediate psychological counseling may be necessary. Physical limitations due to combat must also be addressed.

Basic life skills including interview training, financial literacy and “civilian-speak” may also be required. Relationship with the Veterans Administration should also be firmed up.

Veterans’ interests should be assessed, jobs they held matched with existing civilian ones – and certification programs as needed offered. Once they are in jobs, there should be mentoring to help with reintegration.

Finally, of prime importance is an intangible: counseling soldiers on the cultural shift from a strictly regimented life to a free and open lifestyle with unlimited choices and no regimentation.

This all can be done by the government, outside vendors or a combination of both. What’s missing is the will and the wherewithal to get it done. America‘s veterans want a chance to work hard, make their way up and live the American Dream they fought to protect. We owe them that.

Kerrey is president of The New School and winner of The Congressional Medal of Honor. Wikul served for 39 years as a Navy SEAL and is a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

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