Sometimes, the hardest part of serving in the military is coming home. The transition from combat zone to civilian life is like being in a car crash — 60 to 0 in 3.5 seconds. During service, the military provides for most of your basic needs — housing, food, healthcare, social support. After discharge, you're separated from the people and system which kept you alive from day to day, and you have to start to process the things you may have seen or done. There are many ways you can help veterans when they come home in order to show your appreciation for their amazing sacrifice.
For these reasons and many more, returning home isn't always the wonderful celebration that it should be for many veterans. PTSD, depression, homelessness, poverty, and unemployment are just a few of the issues facing veterans after their return. If you have a family member who has recently returned from combat or will be doing so soon, you might consider participating in a Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Conference. These conferences are a great opportunity to find out about resources and, most importantly, build a support system with other veterans and their families. Alienation is a common problem for those leaving the military, and connecting with others who are going through the same struggle can be helpful. If you have the chance to attend one of these conferences, be attentive and ready to learn about the reintegration process.
As the child of a veteran myself, the best advice I can give is to be patient and observant. My dad was deployed to Afghanistan for 11 months, and his reintegration into family life wasn't easy. Life at home keeps going as best it can during deployment, and it doesn't stop when your loved one comes home. But paying attention and being aware of any emotional or psychological difficulties or triggers can mean the difference between getting help and deteriorating. If you know someone who has recently returned from combat, support them by finding any help they need and encouraging them to not go it alone.
If you don't have a service member in your family, you can still make a difference in a veteran's life — everyone can help support those who serve our country and make their transitions easier. Luckily, there are hundreds of charities and organizations that are actively trying to improve the lives of our veterans, and there are many ways to get involved.
Mental health support is a huge need in the military community. Although VA hospitals provide these resources at little or no cost, there is still a lot of stigma attached to getting help. The Veterans Crisis Line is a 24-hour confidential hotline which connects veterans with trained mental health professionals, and provides resources for support on their website. Mental health professionals can also volunteer their time through Give An Hour, and you can support the organization through other volunteer opportunities, too.
There are also excellent resources for fighting homelessness and poverty among the veteran population. The Wounded Warrior Project, which serves more than 100,000 veterans a year, runs the Warriors To Work program, which connects employers with qualified veterans and provides on-boarding support, reasonable accommodations, and education about common disabilities that affect veterans.
The Hire Heroes USA program, through the United Services Organization, provides resume-building workshops, networking opportunities, and personal career coaching for service members and their spouses. Additionally, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the National Military Family Association are helping provide and ensure educational opportunities for service members so they can continue to grow and achieve after leaving the military. The best way to end poverty is through adequate employment and education, and these charities are providing those resources to veterans and their families every day.
Another pervasive problem for veterans is sexual assault. Every year, 19,000 servicemen and women are sexually assaulted while serving in the U.S. military, and recovering from that trauma can make the transition experience that much more difficult. Kirby Dick's Academy-Award-nominated documentary The Invisible War documents the struggles of men and women who experienced sexual assault during their time in armed services and the insidious way the military's system of justice protects assailants. It's a powerful, eye-opening film that will make you want to take action to end the epidemic.
Over 60,000 military veterans are homeless, $31 million in food stamps are dispensed to veterans and their families each year, and almost one million veterans live in poverty. It's safe to say that the system that supports American veterans is broken. The best long-term way to support veterans is making sure the Department of Veterans Affairs gets the funding it needs and isn't embroiled in partisan politics. Research your congressional representatives and investigate their voting records on bills like the 2014 Veterans Omnibus Bill, which died on the Senate floor. Systemic changes are the best way to ensure our veterans have the longstanding support they need to live happy, fulfilled lives after service.