Challenging Assumptions Made About Veterans

Often, the stories we come across about vets, whatever war they fought in, are stories of difficult transition back to civilian life. Former Navy pilot Ken Harbaugh says actually, most soldiers return just fine.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Now to TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. And on this Memorial Day, we turn to a commentary broadcast on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED a couple of years ago by Ken Harbaugh. He's a former Navy pilot who argued that our understandable focus on the thousands killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the many thousands injured, can distort our perceptions of the hundreds of thousands who've served in those wars and foster stereotypes of damaged veterans.

So we want to hear from vets today: Have you been stereotyped by friends, acquaintances, by employers or by co-workers? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ken Harbaugh is now executive director of the Center for Citizen Leadership, and he joins us today from the studios of member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

And nice to have you on the program today, Ken.

Mr. KENNETH HARBAUGH (Executive Director, Center for Citizen Leadership): Thanks, Neal. My pleasure.

CONAN: And experiences, stereotypes, what are you talking about exactly?

Mr. HARBAUGH: I think the most important thing to remember about my generation of veterans coming home, is that the vast majority of them want to continue being of service to their communities and their country when they get back. And my precocity as executive director of the Center for Citizen Leadership, we run a program called The Mission Continues. And our goal is to help wounded veterans coming home to continue being contributing members of their society. And I think that's the common thread. It's not the narrative that you hear so often of the damaged veteran, the broken veteran. It's the veteran who, in spite of that, wants to continue serving others.

I'll never forget a young Marine I met at Bethesda Naval Hospital, probably just a few weeks out of Iraq after a devastating IED attack. He looked at me, he said, sir, I lost my legs. That's it. I did not lose my desire to serve or my pride in being an American. And that's the real story. The veteran who, in spite of their injuries and in spite of what they've seen and experienced over there - in some cases, because of it, because of their military service - have the desire to continue to be contributing members of their communities.

CONAN: As you noted in that commentary we broadcast, a lot of people - well, the stereotype, I guess, out of Vietnam was Rambo, you know, the crazed veteran, and that certainly didn't help that stereotype, certainly did not help a lot of people. Are we seeing similar kinds of things out of Iraq and Afghanistan?

Mr. HARBAUGH: I think you are. And I think in a lot of cases, it's actually well-intentioned. Americans genuinely want to do right by our veterans. They want to take care of them. And God knows, listening to Lee especially, we're not doing enough. There are unmet needs out there.

But when we focus solely on the needs of veterans, I think we lose sight of what they have left to give. And I'm sure Lee would tell you that one of the key elements of her husband's recovery was the drive to be useful again, to go back to reporting. And I see that again and again in the veterans, the wounded veterans especially that I worked with. The chance to serve again makes all the difference.

And you know what, we need them.

CONAN: And how are people stereotype do you think?

Mr. HARBAUGH: The most damaging stereotype, I think, is the veteran as the charity case, the veteran who just needs help. And like I've said and I'll say it again, we're not doing enough. Veterans still need help. They still have needs. But to focus exclusively on that and to cast them as permanent charity cases does a huge disservice.

One of our early fellows in The Mission Continues tells a great story, and I wish I could tell it as well as he does, of coming home, opening his mail - he lost his lower leg in an IED attack. And there was a nonprofit out there that for a while gave $500 checks to every wounded veteran coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. He opens the letter, he gets the check, and he goes out and buys an Xbox and a bunch of games and spends the next month on a couch.

We go to guys like that. We say, you're better than this. You can do something. Get off the couch and serve. And that, I think, is - that's there anyway, but the opportunities aren't available like they need to be. There is a silver lining. I think some people are realizing that one of the most important elements of recovery is that opportunity. We have in Congress now, a bill going up for appropriations as summer with the veteran's corps, which is I think a major effort to expand this model of giving veteran service opportunities instead of just seeing them as permanent charity cases.

CONAN: And I wonder, Ken Harbaugh, was there a moment in your life, at a party, when you're talking to somebody, or out in the street, wherever, when you said, wait a minute, that person assumes, because I was in Iraq that I'm this way or that way or that I'm - there's something about me that they just assume about me?

Mr. HARBAUGH: I've been very fortunate most of my encounters with those who see me in that way have been charitable. And I imagine most veterans have the same experience. You know, I've had the hand on my shoulder at the party and, you know, the long face, and what you must have gone through, Ken.

And I think the reason to be hopeful about that is that it really does come from a place of concern. And we can tap into that by convincing our countrymen that, yeah, you know, we might have seen things that you haven't and done things that we wish no one would have to, but we're not permanently broken. There are still a lot left that we can do. We can be of service.

CONAN: We're talking with former Navy pilot Ken Harbaugh today, now executive director of the Center for Citizen Leadership. We want to hear from veterans today. Have you been stereotyped? Give us a call, 800-989-8255; email us talk@npr.org.

And let's begin with Mike. Mike calling us from Fayetteville, North Carolina.

MIKE (Caller): Hey, how you doing?

CONAN: All right. How are you today?

MIKE: Pretty good. I guess my comment, I'm kind of echoing what the guy in the show is saying. I think that Americans do feel like they're supporting veterans. But in my experience, it's kind of a culture of victimhood in America. And that's how most people see veterans through that prism of us being victims. And victimization is not - it's almost the opposite of everything the military stands for.

So, even if you're wounded, even if you've got, you know, even if you were blown up, you still don't see yourself in that way. But yet that's the only way that I feel like most Americans see and understand us.

CONAN: All right. Give me an example of how that works?

MIKE: Well, you know, this isn't something that I've experienced personally, because I live in Fayetteville. Fayetteville is, you know, home for brag.

CONAN: Army town, I'm going to say, yeah.

MIKE: Yeah, the typical Army town, so everybody kind of knows what we're all about down here. But I see, like, you know, just when I turned on the news and when I watch, you know, "Oprah" and stuff like that and the way that - the way that through trying to do the right thing, but the way that Americans see veterans, you know, whether it's PTSD, the scandals at Walter Reed like veterans not - you know, wounded veterans not being properly cared for, all these things were we're victims and something needs to be set right to fix us. And I just don't - I think that some of those things are valid but at the same time, that's not the way we see ourselves.

CONAN: Well intentioned but not the way you see yourself.

MIKE: Right.

CONAN: Yeah. All right. Mike, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MIKE: Yup. All right.

CONAN: That culture of victimhood, I think, that could ring a bell with a lot of people, Ken Harbaugh.

Mr. HARBAUGH: Yeah. I agree with that, absolutely. Thanks for the call, Mike. If there's anything that bothers me even more than the stereotype in general -Mike talked about PTSD, and it's the stereotype of those with PTSD, and the conflation of PTSD with sociopath - the idea that because you have a brain injury or psychological trauma, you're somehow unable to not only adjust to civilian life, but you're a danger to those around you. And again, I think that most of the time, this is born out of a place of genuine concern but it can do lasting damage and, God forbid, we let the same narrative established itself about my generation of veterans as we see having been established about the Vietnam generation of veterans.

I'm also a professor at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. And there's a training video out there produced by a major university for educators on how to deal with the typical veteran in the classroom. I'm sure of your viewers have…

CONAN: Typical veterans.

Mr. HARBAUGH: …have seen it, listeners have viewed it on Youtube, but it's been seen a couple million times. But the veteran in the classroom is, you know, of course, belligerent, a danger to himself, to others and his teacher. Even if that video is produced with the intent to help reintegrate veterans, the attitude does more harm than good.

Just the other night, I was watching a major show on network TV in which the bank robbers were all veterans, were all suffering from PTSD, and my favorite part, recruited at the local VA. So, we can probably forgive Hollywood the occasional hair-brained plot but I think the stereotype is pervasive.

CONAN: Here's an email from Anita(ph) in San Francisco. The subject stereotype of vets as all male, the word evokes images of a man. What are the experiences of female vets? Do female - do women vets also get the same victim stereotypes? Are they seen or treated different than male vets?

Mr. HARBAUGH: One of my favorite stories of a - one of our fellows, a woman staff sergeant truck driver in Iraq. I'm sure you know that, at least legally, women aren't supposed to be in front line of combat, but there is no front line in Iraq. It happens whether we admit or not. She suffered 100 percent hearing loss in both ears and eventually Meniere's disease. And she spent the first month after coming home, wondering if she'd ever be useful again, because in her case she was very well taken care of physically but she was never given that challenge.

We came to Sonia. We said, look, what's your dream? What do you want to do? She had always wanted to be a pediatric nurse. We funded a fellowship with the local Big Brothers, Big Sisters and now she is training to be a pediatric nurse.

You just need that push, that opportunity, that initial challenge. Fellows like to say about our program, The Program Continues isn't a charity, it's a challenge.

And when you think about veterans and what motivates them, what motivates guys like Mike from Fayetteville, it's challenge. I mean that's why they joined in the first place. And to think that they'll simply accept help for the rest of their lives because of an injury sustained on duty is a denial of everything that veterans are.

CONAN: Ken Harbaugh on the Opinion Page with us this week. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get David on the line. David with us from Lansing, Michigan.

DAVID (Caller): How are you? Ken's last comments kind of hit home, the feeling that someone needs to take care of us or treat us extra special because we made the decision to serve. And you know, we get called heroes all the time, regardless of the level of service and - I don't want to disparage people's feeling towards us, we're very appreciative. I joined at the end of the Vietnam War and I'm still in now, so I've seen shift comer full circle as far as how veterans are treated.

But me and my son, we both served in Iraq multiple times. And, you know, we are called heroes everywhere we go, and people look at us with almost a defense of sympathy because of our chosen profession. And they have a hard time understanding that this is what we do for a living. You know, this is what we chose to do.

CONAN: It's interesting, David, you mentioned that. I was lucky enough last year to participate in the ceremony with Medal of Honor recipients. And every single one I spoke with said, I wasn't a hero. The real heroes never come back.

DAVID: Exactly. And I get called a hero by somebody a couple times a week. I've been decorated for valor, my son has been decorated. They don't know any particular story. But then, yesterday I watched a program where showing themes from Arlington and it almost makes me feel guilty, you know, that I'm here and that I get to wear my uniform this day and feel the pride that I do when I - when somebody buys me a cup of coffee at the local Starbucks. But you're exactly right, those real heroes are the ones that paid that ultimate sacrifice and even more so those wounded veterans that live with the war in the physical way every single day and they will for the rest of their lives.

I'm lucky enough to be able to put what I need to put behind me as I go forward. We got a lot of veterans who aren't that fortunate.

CONAN: Well, David, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

DAVID: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can get one more caller in. And this is Manuque(ph). Hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. Providence, Rhode Island.

MANUQUE: (Caller): That's correct.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

MANUQUE: Well, about sunrise this morning I was gathered with fellow Vietnam veterans in Exeter, Rhode Island at the veteran's cemetery. And I was with the first cousin who was also in the military during the time of Lieutenant Marine Charles Ugovian(ph) who was killed three days into his service in Vietnam and discovered that the family had received, after the body, the first letter he wrote home saying that he was going to be all right.

But the point I wanted to bring up on this particular subject is having returned, having - being fortunate to return to go to college to graduate with honors and to be instructed how to do a resume, I will never forget myself and the corpsman who were brought up to the front of the room after we filled out the requisite form and followed to the instructions we'd had military service, wrote down what we had done and what we had received for what we have done and was immediately told to remove our references.

CONAN: Why?

MANUQUE: We were told that because of the images of us that we created, that perspective employer would take a lesser person.

CONAN: Oh, I see.

MANUQUE: And I never spoke about, unfortunately, I separated in Italy and never knowing how I was treated, I was (unintelligible) 71. And I knew how the country was treating returning veterans, so I sort of just snuck back into America, went to college, just wanted to integrate. But we - two of us decided after 10 minutes discussion that would be more damage to deny a part of our life. And I continued on to discover why these images existed and did a complete study at the time, this is late 70s, of where those images came from and if there's anything to substantiate those images, including doing microfiche of 10 years at the New York Times to see if any of the images in Hollywood.

CONAN: Were right. And there just not.

MANUQUE: Not one of them.

CONAN: Manuque, thank you so much. And we appreciate you telling us the story about gathering this morning with your pals too.

MANUQUE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. All right. Ken Harbaugh, thank you for your time today.

Mr. HARBAUGH: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Ken Harbaugh, now executive director of the Center for Citizen Leadership, joins us today from the studios of member station WSAQ in Fairfield, Connecticut.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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