By Colonel Bob Notch, U.S. Army (Ret.); Travis Bickford, U.S. Army (Veteran)

In the recent State of the Union, President Trump promised to “not stop until our veterans are properly taken care of” and cited veteran’s choice and his signing of the VA Accountability Act as proof of his commitment. As veterans ourselves, we appreciate the sentiment but we also realize the effort to fold veterans into everyday life goes beyond what the government can do for those of us who served our country.

It’s time to change the narrative that veterans are damaged goods and instead focus on what we are capable of instead of what we are not. If someone says you’re stupid enough times or ugly, you start to feel stupid or ugly. What if someone is constantly saying you’re traumatized, broken, and that you’re damaged goods? Eventually that could have an internalizing effect on veterans themselves.

Let’s focus on the fact that the majority of veterans out there are quality people who have expansive skillsets, are hardworking, and can get the job done. People tend to focus on the broken veteran and that’s all they want to discuss. But there’s more to veterans than that. Yes, there are some who need more help than others, and they should have easy access to support, but we’re not all broken veterans. In fact, many of us are your neighbor or coworker, blending in with everyone else.  There are many of us doing everything we can to address two of the biggest veteran needs – access to mental health and quickly connecting them to services.

We’re actually training veterans to provide mental healthcare to other returning veterans in the nation’s most fully developed program of its kind; the idea being veterans struggling to cope with their return to civilian life may relate easier to a mental-health professional who has been through similar military experiences. Our concept is trying to bring more veterans into the field of mental health, a counter intuitive initiative given the stereotypical views of veterans and trauma. But our program is working. 

Also working is our effort to clear the clutter for veterans who are looking for help so that they are able to easily find help. Re-entering society can be tougher than combat for some, if not all, veterans. And, finding the help they need is just as tough. Consider this: in Massachusetts alone, there are over 200 organizations that provide unique resources and services to veterans. Multiply that by all 50 states and you get the idea of how these disconnected services create an alphabet-soup of well-intentioned entities that mostly confuse and frustrate those who need help. Locating and then sorting through what’s out there, making that an easier connection is what we think is one of the largest challenges out there and we’re working to fix it by enacting the battlefield creed now being used at home – not leaving anyone behind. 

We’re also building programs where people are connected, whether it be through a coordinated services network or by physically bringing nonprofits together into a co-working hub to take advantage of the synergy. After all, when it comes pooling resources and ideas in the effort to help find jobs and other services for our vets – we’re better together.

If people are engaging vets in a new kind of respect and see them in a new way, might that reduce the unemployment numbers among veterans with disabilities? Maybe. In these moments, we dare to dream.

We’ve seen over and over again where very few people look to veterans to provide a service; more times than not, people who contact veterans are doing so to give them a service. That’s an issue. It’s time to celebrate veterans and see them as people who can be strategic assets to their organizations. It’s time to operationalize our support and not only enlist a new kind of thinking when it comes to veterans, but a new thinking toward what we can do for the country we love so much. With that, we can activate a new narrative.

Bob Notch served in the Army for 27 years and was the former program development officer for Brighton Marine; Travis Bickford is the Associate Director of the Train Vets to Treat Vets program at William James College.