Peterson: What do we owe military veterans?

Can we support veterans while simultaneously holding moral reservations about war? This question is often answered in the negative. As the argument might go, any support for veterans is tantamount to moral assent for military action.

Given public concern about the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, those sympathetic to this argument may refrain from supporting young veterans in an effort to maintain the moral high ground. But I think this is a mistake.



In fact, we can support veterans in a variety of ways regardless of moral concerns about warfare. The key to this position is making the acute conceptual distinction between our moral evaluation of wars waged by federal institutions and the citizens chosen to fight them.

Certainly, we will all share the moral reservation of whether war is ever justifiable. But given careful thought, this moral concern is not in logical conflict with an altruistic duty to support those who, without regard to self, have chosen to devote their lives in service of their country.

With the latest reduction of military personnel in both Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a growing urgency for meaningful discussion of how we, the civilian community, will respond to young service men and women as they return from deployment. Of particular importance is developing a robust understanding of the great psychiatric toll that both Canadian and U.S. military personnel have shouldered for the past 10 years.

A 2011 congressional report indicates nearly 27 per cent of U.S. Forces registered with Veterans Affairs have been diagnosed with Combat Operational Stress between 2002 and 2010. Likewise, recent Canadian parliamentary reports estimate roughly 22 per cent of Canadian Forces will suffer from psychiatric injury at the close of military operations in Afghanistan.

When these young soldiers return home, the war is not over for them. Instead, a deep moral and psychological struggle begins as they strive to make sense of what they witnessed, what they did and what their country has asked of them. For the majority, this process is difficult, yet not insurmountable.

For others, however, a failure to reconcile the experience of war can lead to substance abuse, emotional turmoil, and even suicide. At this juncture, Canadian and U.S. citizens have an extraordinary opportunity to reciprocate for these psychological sacrifices of military service. We may believe current foreign policy is a mistake, but this should in no way overshadow our obligations to veterans for bearing the psychological burden of war on our behalf.

So how can the civilian community provide concrete solutions to veteran reintegration challenges?

There are, of course, a variety of answers to this question. However, I believe at least three principal components are necessary for a broad based strategy, which Canadian and U.S. citizens can directly contribute to.

First, psychiatric injury caused by combat experience requires careful investigation by the neuropsychiatric community. With improved diagnostic technologies like advanced neuroimaging and genetic testing, the neuropsychiatric sciences will likely develop a greater understanding of these neurophysiological changes in the coming decade. This, in turn, will result in improved cognitive therapies uniquely tailored to the individual clinical profiles of each veteran.

Research of this sort is already well underway in areas such as San Francisco’s Veterans Health Research Institute, University of British Columbia’s Veterans Transition Program, and Western’s own Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Research Unit. Recent studies have effectively revealed the extent and severity of psychiatric injuries once invisible and poorly understood.

Showing these war wounds are nothing more than natural, neurophysiological responses to stressful environments can change the way young veterans understand the emotional complex that accompanies combat exposure. More importantly, this research has the great potential to alleviate the moral burden many young veterans carry — much of which is grief and shame for not being as psychologically tough as they thought they should be.

A second component, though no less important than the first, is developing a social infrastructure easily accessible and supportive to veterans after discharge. This includes, but is not limited to, educational opportunities, employment opportunities and access to health benefits specified for combat injury.

One pronounced clinical marker of several psychiatric conditions resulting from combat exposure is the feeling of a foreshortened future. Overwhelming negative feelings from wartime memories may overshadow a positive outlook on life and can severely inhibit a young veteran’s initial psychological transition from battlefield to hometown.

Guaranteeing veterans a job, university education and excellent health benefits is a simple yet highly effective way to instill confidence and paint a future that is bright. In partnership with California’s CSU and UC university systems, innovative programs like Troops to College have been instrumental in facilitating these opportunities. Not only have they developed financial solutions for veteran education in California, they have also worked to identify and standardize a procedure that translates military experience into an accelerated university degree.

Innovative veterans transition programs in Canada are equally supportive in this effort. Veterans Affairs Canada has developed a robust career transition program that includes career counseling and employment search services. Programs like these facilitate the simple, yet critical skills of résumé construction and job interview conduct essential for procuring employment and paving a future of financial success.

A final component, and perhaps the most important of the three I have discussed thus far, is the cultivation of social awareness for the psychological challenges veterans face on a daily basis.

Whether U.S. or Canadian, military culture is a proud and stoic one, and it is by no means expected by veterans that civilians have an overly developed sensitivity to the reintegration obstacles they may deal with. However, given many young veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have suffered a great psychiatric toll for their country, it is only reasonable Canadian and U.S. citizens gain some modest sense of this sacrifice in recognition of their service and commitment. Too often are veterans expected to change themselves socially and psychologically during reintegration without a simultaneous alteration in civilian social awareness.

This obligation should instead rest on the shoulders of the civilian community, rather than burdening young veterans who may already carry a heavy psychological load. Working toward the first two goals outlined above is a significant step in this direction. But cultivating awareness of veteran reintegration challenges need not be this complicated. All that is required is a sincere recognition of the armed forces’ service to country and the patience to listen to a veteran’s story if there is a willingness to share it.

The psychological stress of war is certainly ubiquitous throughout history and particular demographic factors of military personnel will never change.

The majority of those on the frontline, as in previous wars, are young — perhaps no older than the average Western student. Their reasons for enlisting are varied — sometimes out of patriotic duty, but often to seek educational and economic opportunity unavailable to them. For these reasons, in addition to the fact those who fight the wars are never the principal arbitrators of foreign policy, our obligations to young veterans should not be overlooked. There will always be unjust wars, foreign policy decisions that skirt the boundaries of moral legitimacy, and actions of individual soldiers unbecoming of their responsibilities as military personnel. But remaining through these indiscriminate moral circumstances will always be the young men and women who simply desire to fulfill a sense of duty by serving their country as well as they can.

How can we fault them for this?

At their core, they are our fellow citizens — our friends from high school, our neighbors we see daily and our professional colleagues. They are familiar to us in ordinary ways, and yet reveal their character in extraordinary circumstances.

Our moral concern for war should not confuse us into thinking we have no obligations to them. For they, without regard to self, bear the unique psychological burden of war on our behalf.

Andrew Peterson is a member of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy and Western’s PTSD Research Unit. His research covers the areas of neuropsychiatry, philosophy of science, and bioethics; with special interest in the reintegration challenges faced by military veterans.