If nothing else, Budweiser’s new ad called “Hero’s Welcome” that airs during today’s Super Bowl is a powerful emotional experience. But for some of us, those emotions are pretty mixed.
The idea for the ad that the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) pitched to Budweiser was that troops were coming home from Afghanistan en masse this year, and that they wanted to send the message that every one of those troops should come home to a hero’s welcome. Many VFW members, particularly those who served in Vietnam, remember a time when they weren’t welcomed home, and even years when they didn’t even feel that they could talk about their military service. Budweiser has sponsored a number of charity campaigns benefiting troops and veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and they have offices (and clydesdales) based in central Florida. So it seemed like a perfect opportunity for the mayor and residents of Winter Park, Florida, to collaborate with Budweiser and the VFW to create this high-profile ad to welcome home a local soldier to represent all troops coming home. And this one soldier who was picked to represent all the troops, Lieutenant Chuck Nadd, seems like a great guy–his girlfriend, family, and town love him, and I have no doubt that he did great things on his deployment; he wears a 10th Mountain patch, so I’d stand with him any day. But all of that still doesn’t keep me from feeling a great deal of discomfort as I watched the ad.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment, the expense, or the effort that the VFW, Budweiser, and Winter Park folks went to in creating this powerful and important message. We’re more than twelve years into a war in Afghanistan, and this year’s large withdrawal of troops will not signal victory, nor will it end U.S. responsibilities there. Our nine-year war in Iraq may be over for the troops, but the insurgency Americans fought there appears to be regaining ground. To date, 8,221 men and women of the U.S. armed forces have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than a million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have survived with injuries, from amputations and brain injuries to post-traumatic stress and other wounds, both visible and invisible, that may affect them for the rest of their lives, even as the Veterans Administration struggles to modernize and provide adequate recognition and treatment of these men and women. Too many of these wounded veterans turn to alcohol and substance abuse to cope with injuries that go untreated. Less than 1/2 of 1 percent of Americans have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and many of them have served multiple tours, and devoted years of their lives to these conflicts–while America as a whole has not been asked to sacrifice to perpetuate these wars. It always means a lot when someone says “thank you” for the portion of my life and effort that I’ve contributed. And it means all the more because so many veterans of previous generations and conflicts never got to hear those words of thanks that they, too, more than deserved.
That said, I still have to be honest here. Homecoming from deployment can be a very complicated thing. You come home to relationships that are broken, or may soon be broken, because of your absence. You come home and don’t know where to start looking for a job, or navigating the endless bureaucracy of veterans’ benefits toward school, or the specialized veterans’ employment assistance programs and helplines you need a psychic to help you find out about. If you’re lucky enough to come home to your old job, your coworkers have moved on in promotions and experience, and will likely ignore whatever you did overseas. Family and friends will welcome you home, but may choose to expound on the pointlessness of the mission you poured every last ounce of pride and effort into over your last six to twelve months. Few, if any, will be particularly interested to hear you remember–or care about–what you saw of the damaged lives and livelihoods of Afghans and Iraqis that came either directly or indirectly from the American enterprises there. And if you don’t look like the typical movie-cast soldier or vet–if you’re a woman, or a Muslim or Hindu, or queer, or any other minority category who has nevertheless served proudly in uniform–you may not even be recognized as a veteran at all. Plus any other host of problematic and bitter experiences veterans have once they come home.
I don’t say this to complain. I say this because I think we can do better. It is a great thing for Americans to express appreciation for veterans, but there is quite simply a disconnect between the “thank you” and genuine recognition of who veterans actually are, what they did, and reintegrating them as valued members of their communities. If you don’t believe me, the statistics speak for themselves: two young veterans per day commit suicide, and a total of 22 veterans per day of all ages commit suicide. It’s a staggering problem, and a complicated one. And “thank you” is only the first step toward solving it.
So what, then, should come after a “Hero’s Welcome”? There are so many things you can do, large and small, but here are a few recommendations I have:
- Get to know the veterans in your family, your workplace, your house of faith, or other social networks–who they are as unique individuals with diverse backgrounds (and diverse reasons for serving) will surprise and impress you.
- Talk with veterans about what was really important to them about their service, what they did, what they learned, and how they felt they made a difference for their comrades and for their missions.
- Talk with veterans, if they are comfortable with it, about what their struggles were during their service. Help them find positive ways to talk through negative experiences and find ways they might transform those bad experiences into something that can help others or create something positive as a result.
- Help veterans translate their military experience into a civilian job.
- Help veterans find (or create, if you’re an educator) a veteran-friendly educational program.
- Help veterans’ families that may still be struggling to have them back home after long (and possibly problematic) absences.
- Help veterans channel their efforts into positive experiences that help them reintegrate–through sports and athletics, volunteer service, writing and speaking about their experiences, or connecting with veterans of other generations.
I’m glad troops are home, and that even more will be coming home soon. And I am glad Budweiser wants to give them a hero’s welcome. But we can–and should–go further to truly bring these men and women back into our communities where they can continue to serve and shine. That would be something we all could feel good about.