The Millennial Generation will be the first generation since the Baby Boomers to have a large group of combat veterans among our number. The Afghanistan and Iraq Wars represent the first time since Vietnam that a large American force has been sent overseas to fight in an ongoing military conflict. Of course, the first Gulf War and the Panama conflicts both had their veterans but those conflicts differed greatly from the current conflicts in the number of deaths, injuries, number of returning veterans and deployed veterans.
Military and former military personnel are an easily-recognizable subgroup among society even though they come from all walks of life, all racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds and all regions of the country. Part of what makes them recognizable is true of most subgroups: patterns of language and dress, shared experiences, shared skills and beliefs. On the outside, they can be distinguished by medals and ribbons, the slang they picked up overseas and in the military and in other ways.
On the inside, however, there is the experience of armed conflict that differentiates them from other groups. Combat veterans are frequently in need of special assistance, financial and physical and sometimes psychological, to help them deal with the experiences they had in war. Disabled veterans have their own needs, their own resources for meeting those needs and frequently their own subculture defined by their shared experiences and challenges. Veterans frequently have difficulties reintegrating into general society (Maugh, 2007).
Moving from the mind set required to survive the battlefield to the mindset required to navigate ordinary every day life can be difficult. Whether disabled or not, veterans organize around their specific experiences and needs. Organizations specific and exclusive to servicemen and women such as the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and The Veterans of foreign Wars (VFW) provide important social camaraderie as well as access to services that address the needs of veterans.
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Veterans as a group are also well-known for their political power and politicians almost always seek and, if they succeed in achieving it, campaign on the support of any veteran’s groups that support or officially endorse their candidacy (Mitchell, 1999). Those endorsements can go a long way to ensuring a given politician’s success, perhaps more than the endorsement of any other subgroup. Regarding society at large, veterans have historically occupied both privileged and ostracized positions in society.
Following the conflict in Vietnam, anti-war sentiment sometimes resulted in veterans being the recipient of harsh treatment by their countrymen. While veterans are frequently used as a prop for political rallies, services offered to veterans to ease their reentry into general society have frequently been underfunded, inadequate and sometimes shameful in the incompetence of their delivery (Vogel, 2007).
But, those services urgently need to be delivered in a timely, compassionate manner and addressing those challenges promise to be the biggest impact veterans, both combat and non-combatant, are likely to have on the Millennial Generation. Those veterans who have debilitating injuries will require lifetime care. Though this fact is not factored into the cost of war, it is certainly among war’s highest.
Veterans who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental illnesses will also require years, perhaps decades, of care to overcome the difficulties. While those services will be costly and long-term, their necessity is undeniable. It is impossible to predict the future but veterans of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts will certainly have an effect on the evolution of the Millennial Generation as we grow and age. Where society is concerned, veterans are certain to continue to occupy the often stereotyped and unrealistic roles into which they’re cast.
Hero or victim, one who has made an honorable sacrifice or one who has been cheated by the government: the roles assigned to veterans seldom allow them to be simply human, subject to the same strengths and frailties as are we all. Subgroups are sometimes defined by shallow, criteria such as fashion, music, patterns of consumption or other superficial means. Whatever the experience of an individual veteran, their service permanently and meaningfully groups them with others of their kind and differentiates them from those who have never served. As to their effect on the Millennial Generation, only time will tell.