By Ray Miller
Veterans Day is a complicated day of remembrance for me. As a veteran myself, I know the importance of thanking those who have served our country, as great sacrifice comes with that privilege. So let me start by saying thank you. Thank you to the men and women who have served in all capacities across all branches of the military, as I know that service comes with time away from your loved ones and putting your life on the line.
But we must also pause and acknowledge the hard reality that just because soldiers are home, that does not mean they are in fact safe. Coming home after a deployment is often the “easy” part. Transition to civilian life can be hard and unforgiving.
I think it’s important to talk about those challenges and plan accordingly to ensure the best success for the veteran and his or her family and community. When we are silent, we are doing them a disservice. That is why, after retiring from the U.S. Air Force, I’ve spent my life helping veterans transition to life after military service. And that’s why I’m writing today about the suicide crisis among the veteran community. We lose 20 veterans to suicide every day in our country. Silence is not an option for me.
Let me start with my own story. When I returned home from military service, I was confused and didn’t know what direction my life would go. Luckily, I was hired as a clerk with the Department of Veteran Affairs and would greet veterans as they came in for their appointments.
I wondered, “why are these veterans still ‘fighting the war?’” (We now know this as post traumatic stress disorder) One day I asked one of my co-workers about this and she suggested that if I were to continue working with veterans perhaps I should return to school to better understand the psychological behavior of veterans in transition from military back to civilian life. I did and became fully engaged in helping veterans make the transition.
I’m also asking our elected leaders to uphold our country’s commitment to service members. We have many services that help save lives, but it’s not enough. My experience working as a National Veterans Service Officer, paired with my own experience, has shown me what more we can do.
We must start by realizing that veterans’ experiences today are not the same as they were a generation ago. Because of medical advances over the past several decades, losing a limb is no longer a death sentence. I am not dismissing the many who still return home with debilitating physical conditions, but I acknowledge that our systems of service for veterans were created for a different reality. We must address the greatest threat to a veteran’s well-being now: trauma. Right now, if you’re a veteran returning home, even under the best circumstance for re-entry, it will be really, really hard.
Many people join the military at a young age and serve for a number of years. We teach them how to be soldiers when they’re 18 and 20 years old, but we don’t have the same standards of preparation for readjustment to civilian life. Many have been in military service longer than they have been civilians. They don’t know life as an adult in the civilian world. We have to educate them and their families and communities.
There’s also a really dangerous narrative out there about veterans and suicide prevention related to educating those about the risks of owning a firearm when they purchase one. While that effort can provide value, it’s often too late and not enough for veterans, or anyone. Service members have extensive firearm training and exposure in the military. They also often own guns as civilians. We have to intervene before they are in crisis. We have to meet veterans where they are and address their whole person.
As an outreach specialist with the National Association of Black Veterans, I would walk the homeless camp in Seattle known as The Jungle. I did that because I knew that 33 percent of veterans in our state are homeless. By going out to find the homeless veterans and helping them navigate the complicated network of services available to them, I was able to bring 1,000 veterans into stable housing situations.
Once they had a safe place to live, we could focus on the next priority: health care. Working side-by-side so many veterans and their families is how I learned that suicide prevention is not education at the gun shop cash register. Suicide prevention is a safe place to live, access to adequate health care, mental health services and employment. Suicide prevention is a spectrum of interventions that starts with housing and health care and ends with smart laws around access to firearms.
We need to change our system to one that just tries to keep people alive to one that helps veterans safely navigate re-entry and build a civilian life that gives them purpose and joy. That change starts with open and honest conversations about what veterans need and where the current structure falls short. We owe it to them.
Ray Miller is a U.S. Air Force veteran and a Tuskegee Airman. He is a past chair of the National Coordinating Committee of the National Association for Black Veterans and currently serves on the Snohomish County Human Rights Commission. In 2016, he was awarded the Henry M. Jackson National Service Award and in October he was awarded the President’s Award by the NAACP. A husband, a father and a grandfather, he makes his home in Marysville with his wife, Jennifer.