I’ve spent enough time ‘in theater’, and have a good enough memory to remember, who was and who wasn’t there with me. And I can tell you unequivocally that not one of the bureaucratic bastards who make decisions for our returning veterans ever stood by my side when the shit hit the fan. Every veteran out there is nodding his head right now, because every one of them knows it too. Those of us who fought and died together have a bond that only we can understand. I know that sounds like boilerplate bullshit, but it also happens to be true. We also know that bureaucratic bastards aren’t unique to government: there are plenty of them that make it through the recruiter’s office. Furthermore, plenty of them end up gracing the halls of academia and thus being commissioned into Her Majesty’s Canadian Armed Forces, where they will end up in key decision-making positions and can dick-dance away a 30-year career making life difficult for the rest of us. Even if you’re a commissioned officer, you know those of whom I speak.
The burden of bad management seems to fall most heavily on those who have released from the military and are now attempting to create civilian lives. This goes doubly for those with physical or psychological wounds, of which there are many. What I want more than anything right now is to speak to veterans, both retired and serving, to try and root out some intellectual rot that I’ve seen setting in across our ranks.
First off, I want to remind you that you are entirely replaceable as a serving soldier/sailor/airman. You might have realized this if you’ve ever threatened your chain of command with your imminent release from the military if they didn’t post you/not post you/promote you/do something simple that would make your life WAY fucking easier. It’s a safe bet that if you’ve ever been in that position, your boss shrugged his shoulders and left you feeling that you’re entire contribution to the security of our nation has been worthless. You’re not worthless, and your contribution has been invaluable, but you are replaceable. In fact, you’ve been designed to be replaceable. The entire military structure relies on the fact that you are replaceable. Shit, even the CDS is replaceable! Whatever your position, from Corporal to Colonel, there are hundreds of people who can do your job. Sure, they might not do it just like you would have done it, but they’d do it just as well. And besides, 99.9999% of the military would never even notice if your replacement was a complete loser. But if they ever did notice, they’d just replace him too.
That said, none of the above has any bearing on your worth as a human being or your value to your mates as a friend and comrade. But get used to the fact that you’re not a ‘special snowflake’ no matter how awesome you are. At a fundamental level, we are all identical and interchangeable for the purposes for which we are trained and employed. The reason I say that is to make you all realize that the military thinks BIG. But you are NOT BIG. You are small. So when agencies and programs get designed for the purpose of helping soldiers (think VAC, the Veterans’ Charter, the military’s system of healthcare, etc.) they are not designed for you as an individual, they are designed for us in aggregate. And while this seems unfortunate, and it is, it can’t possibly be any other way. It’s nobody’s fault. It would be impossible for every soldier to be taken care of on an absolutely individual basis, taking into account each person’s individual circumstances and needs. And if we were honest, we’d put away most of the bitching we do and admit that in this country, we’re actually taken care of pretty well, especially when compared to other militaries, other civilian jobs, and other parts of the world. It’s not ideal, but it’s generally pretty damn decent. Try losing your legs working for Big Al’s Drilling Co. and see how long it takes for the cheques to stop coming: I suggest you use a stopwatch.
The Even-Worse Problem
For the most part, the Canadian public hero-worships us. Almost every vet I know is really uncomfortable with this, which is a pretty good sign that the public’s adoration is not misplaced. However, I have a serious problem when their good intentions lead to sentiments that go too far. I see this on social media pretty often. Slogans like:
“No Veteran Should Ever Be Homeless”
“They Deserve The Best”
“We Owe Them All The Help They Need”
Look, I get it. And I know that these sentiments come from a good place in the hearts of those who are grateful for our significant sacrifice. And they should be grateful, because it is as significant sacrifice to serve your country in a theater of war.
But do the above slogans really apply to us? To you? To anybody?
“No Veteran Should Ever Be Homeless”. Well OK, no one should ever be homeless. But it happens. Sometimes it even happens to veterans. Not many, but some. What lengths would we have to go to in order to ensure that NO VETERAN was ever homeless? This is an unachievable goal. There are tens of thousands of us. Some of us will inevitably end up homeless at some point, and no organization or government will ever be able to change that. But our current government has done a remarkable job of keeping the actual number of homeless veterans to a minimum. There are very few homeless veterans and none of them look like the Vietnam-era image of the scruffy guy with a cardboard sign and an olive drab jacket who’s been left for dead by a society that just doesn’t give a shit (which is what everyone imagines). That’s not a reality, and I don’t like feeding an inaccurate stereotype.
“They Deserve The Best”. This one is absurd from start to finish: what the hell is the best and how can ANYONE deserve it? Even if we did deserve the best, no one could ever give it to us. We deserve a paycheque during our service, public support, the pension that we pay in to, and reasonable care and accommodation if we get injured or wounded. But even in the worst case scenario, I hope to hell that no one ever thinks that I deserve to be a ward of the nanny state that will treat me like a child by giving me all of the things it thinks I deserve.
“We Owe Them All The Help They Need”. Owe them? All the help? I need help to keep my kids from crying themselves to sleep at night when I’m deployed because they’re scared I won’t come home. What’s the plan for THAT? Not only can’t our country give us all the help we need, but the idea that we’re owed something makes us sound like pimps running a protection racket. Buy me a beer on Remembrance Day and stand the fuck up when they play the National Anthem, and I’ll be a happy man. I joined the military to serve my country: I’ll take your thanks and some modicum of respect, but don’t belittle my service by making me into an object of pity.
So here’s the take away for veterans: don’t feed this line of sappy garbage sentiment. It might feel good now, but it’s going to drag you down and destroy you. We are not the newest victim class next to teenage mothers, welfare queens, illiterate street urchins, and cancer patients. We’re MOTHERFUCKING WARRIORS. Yeah, I know not everything goes smoothly for vets after they release. But why would it? That’s not life. And we should absolutely demand our due when guys fall through the cracks or get boned by the system. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we don’t have to ensure just treatment and fair compensation for ourselves and each other, but the military isn’t ‘green welfare’ either. We’re the fittest, most intelligent, best trained, and most ambitious demographic cohort in the country, so let’s act like it. No matter how bad things seem, no matter how bad things are, we are NEVER victims. Even our Fallen aren’t victims. They were warriors who fell on the battlefield. They deserve honour, but they won’t get it through pity. And neither will we who remain.
Lastly, you need to be aware that there’s a strong political angle to all of the criticism that the treatment of veterans receives. Both Opposition parties have a vested interest in championing the veteran’s cause: not because they give a shit about you (if you seriously think the Grits and Dippers – or their voters – give a damn about the military, you need to go wash your brain in a Varsol bath) but because they want to steal Conservative votes ie: the voters most likely to actually give a shit about you. And by the way, this is the only reason that any political party gives a shit about anything: votes. But because Conservative voters tend to genuinely care about us, the Conservatives do too. Which doesn’t make the Conservatives moral paragons: it’s a Parliament of Whores no matter who’s in charge. But it does mean that, in my considered opinion, you (yes you) are an idiot for not voting Conservative. And you shouldn’t support the efforts of any party who wants to win Brownie points by pretending to champion your cause, because no matter how many Conservative voters the other parties steal, conservatives will never be their base of support and those parties will sell you out for bong hit their first day in power.
I’m going to finish by giving advice that is applicable to both serving and retired members. My advice is in two parts: 1) Don’t let the system fuck you, and; 2) Don’t fuck the system.
Don’t Let the System Fuck You: Like I said before, the system(s) that are in place for us aren’t meant, by necessity, to deal with you as an individual, and there’s a fairly good chance that you or someone you know won’t fit the model that the system was designed to address. For example, the military moves thousands of soldiers and their families all across the country every year. It’s a giant pain in the ass, and it isn’t handled well, but it gets done. But that system isn’t built to deal with the vagaries of the real estate market. I know several guys who were put in serious financial difficulty because they were forced to relocate and either couldn’t sell their house, or were forced to sell at a loss. Enough soldiers were put in this position that they’ve launched a ‘Class Action’ to try to recoup some of their losses. This is all well and good: the military has got to be smart enough to move guys without bankrupting them. There are many other examples where systems that were put in place to help guys out have let them down instead, and I’ll let you come up with further examples yourselves. Suffice it to say that you have a right, and consequently a duty, to kick and scream HARD when things aren’t working the way they’re supposed to. Support each other in these efforts.
Don’t Fuck the System: This is the most ticklish part of this whole article to write because I’m going to speak a hard truth to you. If you’re being honest and you’re willing to think about it, I know you’ll agree with me: most of the time when the system doesn’t work for us, it’s our own fucking fault. I know LOTS of guys who have dealt with the medical system/mental health system/VAC/the career manager etc. who have shot themselves in the foot by identifying a shortcoming in the system and then have adopted a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude to try to force things to go their way. If this is your attitude, you need to be fully willing to accept that the option the military chooses will be the ‘highway’. Remember what I said at the beginning about you being replaceable? Riiiight… The military structure does not, will not, and cannot cater to your personal circumstances just to make you happy. This is a fact. And a lot of guys who should know better regularly fail to see this. Don’t be intransigent in the face of mind-numbing bullshit. You HAVE TO work within the system, because that’s how systems work. There are no other viable options, so accept an 80% (or even a 51%) solution and move on. In the worst instances I’ve seen, veterans fully embrace the sentiments behind the slogans we’ve already talked about and DECIDE THAT THEY’RE GOING TO PLAY THE VICTIM NO MATTER WHAT. If you deliberately fuck-off the system and all that it can do for you, and then bitch that the system isn’t working, I have very little sympathy for you. You’re still my brother and I’ll still help you out. But you know, and I know, and you know that I know, that you’re the one at fault. You need to cut the crap, because it’s tarnishing us all. Especially when you go bitching about your shitty situation to everyone and their dog, or dragging things into the public spotlight.
I want to end with this thought: the guys who you stood beside ‘over there’, and who stood beside you, are your lifeline and greatest resource. The systems and safety nets put in place to look after all of us aren’t perfect, and guys will slip through and fall hard. We need each other just as badly now as we did then. If you’re having a hard time, you owe it yourself and all of us to reach out for help. You’d have had no problem asking for covering fire in the sandbox, so don’t be reluctant now. Conversely, if you’re doing alright and find that your buddy needs your help, get off your ass and start humping, because the Brotherhood didn’t end when you got off the plane or were handed your discharge papers.