Counting The Cost

Flag courtesy of Chris D., fellow Army wife.

Flag courtesy of Chris D., fellow Army wife.

I believe it’s well-known by now that freedom doesn’t come free, or even cheap. Even the most die-hard peace-loving dove acknowledges the sacrifices that are made and will thank Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, and Sailors for their service. We easily acknowledge the time away from family, the limbs and lives lost. Those are things that are tangible, visible, and unmistakable costs for service.

But what about the rest? At the end of service, when a Soldier has his or her discharge papers and they are looking towards a civilian future, what do we have?

I write this in response to those (no-nothing dimwits) uninformed citizens who wonder about a young man, age 38 or maybe a little older, who is eligible for a lifetime retirement check. I write this for those who talk about how they won’t receive their retirement checks until they are old(er) men and women. I write this for those in Congress or elsewhere who desire to chip, chip, chip away at the payment these service members have earned.

My husband, and others like him, signed a contract when he was 17 years old to enter the Army at age 18. His parents had to agree to this. By the time all is said and done, he will have more than 25 years in the military. Please do not mistake anything that I write about him or others like him (for some of these facts do not apply to him or to our situation) as a complaint or as a woe-is-us kind of comment. I just want people to understand. I’ll use “SFC Anderson” as my example Soldier, but some of this could apply to officers, to Staff Sergeants, or to those who were pushed out of the Army before they intended to leave because of downsizing.

SFC Anderson has never written a resume. He has 20+ years of experience, but it’s with the same employer though with many different duty positions. Translating military lingo for a civilian workforce is a complex process.

SFC Anderson has never gone on a job interview. The only job he’s had was working minimum wage in high school, and he applied to that wearing his nicest jeans and a clean shirt.

SFC Anderson has not slept well for the last ten years. Constant deployments, with their high rate of stress and little down time, have made it difficult for him to go to sleep and stay that way. This is true for many soldiers, and does not even reflect those who have nightmares or other sleep disturbances.

Lack of sleep, over time, results in depression-like and ADHD-type symptoms. His concentration and ability to focus have begun to suffer. When he asks for help, prior to retiring from the Army, his unit changes his duty schedule and requires him to reschedule appointments. Getting help requires a drive and a deep desire which he may or may not have.

The sticking point for many might be that SFC Anderson is only 38. “He’ll be collecting benefits for decades!” Twenty-plus years of military service does horrible things, even in peacetime or stateside. Knees blow out, spines compress, and shoulders and ankles are worn past what most men or women have at that age. They may look young, and their age seems young, but these are old men and women on the inside. Many of them are broken – and these are the healthy ones! These are the ones who do not carry outside physical scars. They may not even qualify under the VA’s standards for disability ratings, but they are not physically capable of the kind of hard work for which many of them are trained.

Some of them may not be trained for anything but physical work. Unless they were granted the opportunity (and yes, in case they were smart enough to reach out for opportunities), some of these soldiers may reach the end of their time in service knowing skills for which there are either no available jobs, or for which the civilian sector does not recognize their abilities. Or, simply, they may be trained for jobs they can no longer perform because of their physical state.

“He will have better healthcare than we will!” Well, perhaps. Once he retires, SFC Anderson might even be able to go to an urgent care that will do more than give him Motrin and an ace bandage. He might be able to choose his doctor if he uses Tricare for retirees. Consider, won’t you, the fact that SFC Anderson will also have far greater need for continued health care than the average person of his age? Physical wear and tear, mental exhaustion, sleep issues – all compliments of the service that was performed for the U.S. Citizen. I would say that this health care was also earned.

SFC Anderson may be one of the lucky ones, and may have found amazing programs like VCTP, which helps train veterans for the civilian world with everything from soft skills like how to interview for a job, to specific certification programs.  He may be doubly lucky, and have found programs that allowed him to work with civilian employers for a period of time leading up to his official retirement. Quality programs like these make a huge difference between a servicemember who leaves the military unprepared, and one who is able to fit in more easily with the civilian workforce.

“He can use the GI Bill and go to school,” one might say.  This is true, and I (and others) are extraordinarily thankful for the renewed program called the Post-9/11 GI Bill. I would still say, however, that these are earned benefits, not granted by the largesse of our Congress. In my husband’s initial contract, he signed up to receive school benefits. They are contractual obligations that were promised by the U.S. government. They’ve improved over his career, so they are now more meaningful. Recruiters still use education benefits to entice qualified young men and women.

My point is this – “SFC Anderson” and my husband and so many others like them are not your average 40-something. Comparing their retirement options with, for example, my own, is ridiculous. Their retirement checks, which are federally taxed, were earned through their blood, sweat, and tears. There is a cost to their service, even if it may not be visible on the surface.

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So what am I thankful for, this second day of November? I am thankful for the friends I will see tonight, the author who will sign our book (more to come on that later), and the fact that I know my husband and I will be ok once he is done with this Army gig. We have done a lot to prepare for it, and there is still time to continue our preparations.

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