Veterans Struggle to Transition to Civilian Life After Service

Nov 3, 2016

We sit down with NPR correspondent Quil Lawrence. He's covering the issues faced by millions of Americans who are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as they transition to life back at home. We'll discuss the struggles faced by veterans, as well as his time as NPR's bureau chief in Kabul and 10 years of reporting in Iraq.


Quil Lawrence spent nearly twelve years covering combat in Iraq and Afghanistan before turning his attention to veterans, and he credits his time as an embedded journalist with soldiers in the Middle East with helping him become aware of the issues veterans face when they leave the military.

Lawrence says civilians in the United States who aren't personally connected to the conflicts in the Middle East may say they care about veterans, but do not involve themselves with the veteran community. He describes this trend as "yellow-ribbon fever." 

This [is the] idea that certainly around Veterans Day, and at big sporting events, and on the back of your bumper, everyone supports the troops. And that's a sincere feeling, it just doesn't always go very far in terms of, say, going out and meeting with veterans, [and] trying to find veterans in your community to understand their story.

Many callers, including New Hampshire veterans, agree with Lawrence. Several say finding a civilian job was especially challenging after service. Richard, a veteran, says he feels like he needed a new identity in order to work without the rank and order of the military. Ray, a career officer who retired after 26 years, says managers had a difficult time understanding how his military skills translated into civilian work. 

This has been a problem for decades, says Lawrence, and veteran organizations are making an effort to help veterans find work based on their military responsibilities.

Learn[ing] how to describe what you've been doing, translating what your military specialty was, can be tricky.

Likewise, military skills, such as driving an armored vehicle or performing emergency first aid in combat, are rarely accepted as sufficient training for civilian jobs such truck drivers or emergency medical technicians. 

During this election season, both presidential candidates have outlined plans for improving the VA that would amount to privatization. Currently, many veterans cannot get specialized veterans services because of limited resources and administrative backlog at the VA.  At the same time, many veterans do not want to go outside of the VA to receive care.

Most of the veterans in this country are older [and served in Vietnam], and many of them are already accustomed to the health care they already have, and they don't want to see it privatized. 

Even if these services were more widely available through the VA, many veterans and active military personnel do not seek treatment for mental health issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD), for a number of reasons.

There are some real consequences that make [seeking treatment] a bit double-edged. When the military says, 'we want you to be open about this, we want you to ask for help,' and at the same time...if [soldiers] come forward and say they have mental health issues while they're still in [the military], they could lose security clearance or they won't be deployable.

In 2014, 20 veterans committed suicide per day. 

Younger vets are committing suicide at a much higher rate than civilians. And the really shocking number within that, for me, is that female vets are committing suicide at 2.5 times that of civilian females of that similar age.

Lawrence says that there is not a definitive explanation for why the suicide rate among veterans has increased, especially younger veterans, and there are no easy explanations. For example, the statistics do not show a correlation between deployment or combat experience.

There are some theories as simple as the fact that these are people who understand how to handle firearms and so are more proficient. There are ideas that people who join the military are more likely to have had a pre-existing condition. But this is something people are studying, still. 

Lawrence spoke at UNH Law School on November 2, 2016 as part of the Justice & Journalism Speaks Series, a collaboration between NHPR and UNH Law. 

Read more of Lawrence's coverage here