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Challenging Veteran Stereotypes—A Commentary by Ken Harbaugh ’08

The following commentary aired on NPR’s “All Things Considered” on December 6, 2007.

Challenging Veteran Stereotypes
By Ken Harbaugh ’08

Commentator Ken Harbaugh makes the case that not all soldiers coming back from the war are messed up physically or emotionally. He argues that most soldiers who come back from the war lead incredibly rich, productive lives.

America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the most filmed conflicts in history.  Already a flood of documentaries and movies have come out, purporting to show what is really happening.  On balance, this is a good thing.  For a democracy like ours to make the best decisions about war, we must be informed.

I worry though, that the veterans' experience is being portrayed in a way that could hurt for years to come.  Most Americans have not seen combat, much less in Iraq or Afghanistan. The prevailing image of today's veteran is gotten through the media, through movies and pictures that often dwell on the trauma of war, the injury it does to the body and the psyche.

This focus on the "damaged" veteran is, for the most part, well intentioned. As a nation, we have no higher moral duty, none, than caring for those we send to do our fighting.

Yet this picture of the veteran scarred by war is incomplete, and often unfair.  Some do return physically and emotionally shattered.  But not most. Indeed, the vast majority of my former military friends are not only proud of having served, but feel that it made them stronger.  This is not a defense of war or the wisdom of our current policies.  Still, the act of serving your country, alongside other Americans you would give your life for, I believe changes a person for the better.

After Vietnam, the media created an image of returning vets as crazed sociopaths, unable to readjust to civilian life.  Movies like Deerhunter and Rambo were standard fare, depicting vets as damaged goods.  We're starting to see the same myth emerge today, with movies like Ground Truth and In the Valley of Elah.

I applaud anyone who shines light on the plight of those veterans traumatized by war.  Their story is important.  Americans need to hear it. But pretending that this is every veteran's experience is wrong.

The truth is that many vets adapt extremely well to life after the military. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show vets today are more likely to be employed than their non-veteran counterparts.  According to the Justice Department, they're less likely to be imprisoned.  And in a survey commissioned by the VA, ninety-one percent of Vietnam veterans who had seen combat said they were "glad they had served their country."

Our veterans are an asset, not a liability.  This applies even to those wounded.  Many I've talked to would rejoin their units in a heartbeat if they could.  That isn't about the justness of our foreign policy. It's about bravery.  It's about love.  The overwhelming majority of veterans today are proud to have worn the uniform.

I suppose we'll just have to wait for a movie about that.