It’s time to stop stereotyping veterans

It’s time to stop stereotyping veterans
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Most of us are taught from an early age that stereotypes, typically defined as an over-generalized belief about a group or class of people, are bad. We are taught not to assume that all members of the same race, ethnicity group, or gender or the same. We are taught that thinking otherwise is indicative of an uncouth prejudice more suited for a bygone period in our nation’s history.  

Yet, despite the advances we’ve made as a society (and yes, in many aspects, we still have a long way to go), in terms of tolerance, why do we still refer to “veterans” in a stereotypical way, as if all veterans have the same needs that derive from the same, often negative, experiences?

America’s veteran population is diverse. Of the 20.4 million veterans in the U.S., nearly two million are women. The population of Hispanic and African-American veterans is on the rise. A sizable percentage, 39 percent, to be exact, have served in a combat zone. Approximately half of the veteran population, or 9.3 million veterans, utilize at least one VA program. Of those that do use VA services, nearly five million are in receipt of disability benefits. Similarly, about five million veterans live in areas designated as rural by the U.S. Census Bureau.

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This data gives only a glimpse into the diversity of the U.S. veteran population. But it begs the question, what is meant by politicians and stakeholders when they simply refer to what “veterans” want, without elaborating on what veterans they are speaking about?

Stereotyping veterans is not limited to one political party or interest group.  

Take, for example, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. At a joint hearing before the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees in December, Wilkie testified that “veterans are happy with the service they get at the Department of Veterans Affairs.” Wilkie’s comment fails to reference the fact that more than half of the veteran population does not use any of VA’s services, or that the quality of services varies widely across the agency based on location and type of medical specialty for those who do.

Similarly, in recent remarks to Stars and Stripes, a news organization that reports on military and veterans issues, newly elected Chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Mark Takano (D-Calif.), criticized the group Concerned Veterans for America as being “driven by ideology, not by asking what’s best for veterans.” Takano’s remarks reflect a gross over-generalization that what’s “best for veterans” is a simple one-size-fits-all solution.  

It isn’t and it’s time for lawmakers to acknowledge it.

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More significantly, however, is that this way of thinking, i.e., that all veterans are the same, is detrimental to productive policymaking.  The future of veterans’ health care is not black and white. Lawmakers need to stop insisting that all veterans go to the VA or seek care outside of it and start applying a more nuanced thought process to their policy debates.  

To this end, a truly productive dialogue involves first acknowledging that not all veterans have the same healthcare needs and therefore, it does not make sense to say that they all require the same health-care delivery model.  

For example, the needs of an elderly male veteran who served during peacetime and lives in a rural area are almost assuredly quite different from those of a young female combat veteran living in an urban metropolis. To lump these two together merely as “veterans” is an injustice to both of these individuals’ needs and the service they provided to our country.

Moreover, in addition to ceasing to stereotype veterans altogether, lawmakers must also work to dispel the negative stereotypes about veterans that often prevail in the news media. An important aspect of emphasizing the diversity of our veteran population entails working to eliminate these negative stereotypes, such as thinking that all veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder  or that they are all either suicidal, homeless, or unemployed.

Instead, as a means of highlighting the diversity within the veteran population, lawmakers and the media, should also focus on emphasizing the experiences of veterans who are successful and thriving members of their communities.

One of these veterans, for example, is Chris Marvin, the founder and former executive director of Got Your 6.  Marvin has frequently sounded off on the topic, emphasizing the need to dispel the prevailing veteran stereotype of the “broken hero . . . who once did incredible things but is now forever damaged and in need of help.”

He elaborated that “the truth is, 99 percent of us are neither broken nor heroic . . . We are people – people the public has invested in who have a lot of potential.  And it’s time to get over the pity party.”

Thus, as the 116th Congress gears up and begins focusing on the future of veterans’ healthcare, lawmakers would be wise to use a more nuanced approach in how they discuss the needs of today’s “veterans.”

Rory E. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.