The Pre- and Post-9/11 Veterans Divide

At the Yale Veterans Summit

At the Yale Veterans Summit

Last Saturday, I had the honor of speaking on a panel of civilians and veterans at the Yale Veterans Summit to discuss popular portrayals of the military and veterans, and how to bridge the “military-civilian divide.” I was one among many incredible and accomplished panelists, to include PBS News correspondent Paul Solman, New York Times writer and editor James Dao, Marine veteran and entrepreneur Zach Iscol, theater producer Anne Hamburger, and moderated by Army veteran and author  Adrian Bonenberger.

I started out talking about my pre-9/11 military experience, and how I enlisted back in 1994 in part because I’d seen positive portrayals of women in the Army as a teenager watching “China Beach,” and also in part because of my family’s history of positive experiences in the Army. I thought the military could help me get my life back on track, and also that it would be a great thing to do in general. So I found an Army recruiter and signed up.

I described how my basic training platoon’s female drill sergeant was an important role model for us–men and women alike–because she’d been on the front lines as an MP during Desert Storm. I talked about how committed to realistic training we were in my Army Reserve unit–we were led by many Gulf War veterans, and we knew one day we’d get the call to deploy somewhere. People forget that there were many armed conflicts in the 1990s that asked troops to put their lives at risk, yet so many of us had grown accustomed to potential employers asking questions that indicated to us we weren’t hired for jobs because of concerns about the Army Reserve taking us away from these jobs (which is technically illegal, yet impossible to prove). We were also used to civilians disregarding our part-time military service as not really “real.” When “The Atlantic” published Tom Ricks’s excellent essay, “The Widening Gap Between Military and Society” in 1997, I passed it around to my friends in the Reserve. Finally, someone got it and was willing to write about it.

Training in the Army Reserve, pre-9/11

Training in the Army Reserve, pre-9/11

I remember going to drill with my Reserve unit a couple of weeks after 9/11. We were all stunned by what had happened. Security at our Reserve Center had been heightened to the point that jersey barriers, sandbags, and armed gate guards were the new norm–at least for the time being. There was a clear sense in the air that our lives had changed completely. And perhaps more bitterly–a few of us also commented that, “Oh, so now America cares about us.”

Americans are great at forgetting things. This is historically both a blessing and a curse. My friend Bob, a Vietnam veteran, has said to me more than a few times–“America will forget you, too.” This has resonated with me profoundly, mostly in part because I’ve seen even my own colleagues in the military forget that troops were deployed in the 1980s and 1990s to conflict zones across the globe: Granada. Panama. Desert Shield/Storm. Haiti. Somalia. Bosnia. Many of these deployments were far more dangerous than many “combat” deployments by troops post-9/11 to Kuwait, Qatar, Bagram Airfield, and so on.

Yet these pre-9/11 troops who served–so many of them in roles facing an armed enemy–nevertheless get only a rare mention by those honoring troops serving after 2001. These troops returned home to an American public that barely knew what they did, and in small numbers that did not receive the peer support, services, and resources that have come available for post-9/11 veterans. Many nonprofit organizations, and many VA service programs as well, are targeted only for post-9/11 veterans. Those who served in combat in the 1980s and 1990s are wholly left out, not to mention the Vietnam-era veterans who still struggle because services were never available to them when they came home.

One of the audience members at our panel asked us to respond to this often-repeated statement: “America’s military went to war after 9/11, while the rest of America went to the mall.” It’s a statement that many of us identify with, and it’s a succinct way of illustrating the military-civilian divide we often feel and experience. But we also need to check ourselves on this, too.

In response to that audience member, I mentioned that I, too, wanted to be at “the mall” following my deployments, and while I was deployed, I wanted Americans back home to continue normal life–including trips to the mall–safely at home. We need to check our outrage, and think about what we might be missing, too. I posed two questions:

When was the last time any of us insisted that the services and resources that have come available to those of us who served in Iraq or Afghanistan also included those who served in pre-9/11 conflicts? And why not? 

When was the last time any of us who are proud of our military service also encouraged others to serve our country in other ways? There are ways for everyone to serve this country, whether in the military, or as teachers, police, firefighters, social workers, or any other jobs that build our country and keep it safe and functioning on a daily basis.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the Franklin Project are pushing a model of national service for all American youth–as well as the idea that all Americans should have at least one year of national service they can be proud of. I couldn’t agree more.

Let’s begin bridging the military-civilian divide, the pre-9/11 and post-9/11 divide, and all of these other divides by first and foremost recognizing all of the ways that people have served the greater good to keep our country strong and safe. And let’s also reach out to our pre-9/11 veterans with the same appreciation we’ve shown as a country to post-9/11 veterans. No one who has served our country should ever feel forgotten or left behind.

20 thoughts on “The Pre- and Post-9/11 Veterans Divide

    • Try this on for size. I joined the Army in 1973, that’s right, hen volunteering was unheard of. Did my Basic/Ait and went Korea where I served until 1976, can anyone Remember Operation Paul Bunyan?? Most likely very few remember or even care, oh yes Agent Orange was still being stored and used in Korea until 1975, have pics if you like. anyways lets continue, Along comes Grenada, Panama, Desert Shield/Storm, Bosnia, Somalia, and way to many other events to mention. I was a Combat Medic, LPN, Instructor, as well as Preventive Med, 4 MSN, numerous Arcoms, AAm, and a Armed forces Expeditionary Medal with 3 Oaks, Seven Service Stripes, 8 overseas stripes, retired after 21 years of service. Now am VA disabled at 40 % while post 9/11 are receiving 100% for lessor things, my My retirement Pay is Reduced by the Va pay(tax free, still my money) while a 40% post 9/11 gets same amount for 6 months service. Ok, am I upset, no, I am pissed. The wounded Warrior projects,not only assist post 9/11 soldiers, the contribute to the American Red Cross, and various other non for profit agencies, But you know what. I am damn proud to be an American, Retired Army, Disabled Vet

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  1. The education benefits I received for spending less than a year on active duty as a reservist post-9/11 far outweigh those I received serving nearly nine years on active duty in the 90s. And I had to contribute $100 a month my first year (during which I grossed less than $10K) to be entitled to those benefits!

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    • As a pre-9/11 reservist, I received around $300 per month while I was in school full-time, which I appreciated at the time. Three overseas deployments to Afghanistan later, I’m only eligible for an additional few months of post-9/11 G.I. Bill. It’s a great thing the new G.I. Bill was passed, but boy, did we miss out.

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  2. “The greatest casualty is being forgotten”<<<still having a hard time making the burn go away WWP.<<<SHAME on them for country twangin' bout the fields of viet NAM. Here is an excerpt from one of my most recent poems titled "Vietnam On My Mind":

    Wounding Warrior Projects pimp pain for just 63 cents a day
    Third world style in the good ole' U ess of A
    Country twangin' bout the fields of VietNAM
    But when you called you said
    "they don't know who I am…"
    They thanked you for your service before hanging up
    Maybe you can make up for the loss jingling that DAV cup
    Oh and uh, sorry bout' your luck

    Thank you for not forgetting us. Thank you for this article and educating folks on an inconvenient and unpopular truth.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You inspire and educate me, Sarah. It’s true–I wish WWP (and so many other well-known nonprofits) included those among us who happened to serve in combat pre-9/11 and still struggle from their wounds.

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  4. As a Somalia veteran I fear that one day after the Vietnam Vets are gone we will be left behind by the “Army of ONE”. There is no loyalty in supporting any organization that leaves ANY soldier behind.That hurts more than the discriminatory “eligibility criteria” from these dot.orgs AND the VA. WWP, for example, spearheaded the VA Care Giver Act which includes the VA Care Giver Stipend which states “illness/injuries must have occurred on or after September 11, 2001. Our families are also casualties of war when they are left to care for us who bore the battle without the same support afforded to Post-9/11 caregivers.

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  5. I am currently recovering from surgery that I had on Friday. Six week recovery time. I am 100% total and permanently rated service connected disabled veteran. A few months ago I received my denial letter for the VA care giver stipend because my illness/injuries did not occur on or after 9/11. My husband has taken off through the Family Leave Act. He works part time as a school bus driver to help me manage my service connected disabilities and care for our two small children. As a part-time worker he does not get paid leave or time off. I served my country honorable and under fire. But I don’t “qualify”. Even serving under fire should not be considered for eligibility criteria. There are two kinds of veterans, VETERANS and DISABLED Veterans…PERIOD. It shouldn’t matter if you spent your whole career flipping flap jacks at the mess hall in Ft. Knox, KY or served in combat. If you are disabled as a result of honorable service to our country then you should “qualify” for the same benefits afforded to any other disabled veteran. Oh, and the GI bill should NEVER expire and should ALWAYS come with a housing stipend.

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  6. My observances over decades is that Congress is quite effective at dividing veterans using their legislative sledge hammers. Those who served during the Vietnam era are the ones who have battled to ensure future generations of veterans would be treated better. Congress bastardized the bills to split the generations while thanking us for our service. Check their voting records. Call your representatives on their actions. Get involved. Otherwise, we are all just more “disgruntled veterans.”

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  7. Having served in the pre and post 9/11 I find the comment that Bosnia, Panama and other small conflicts were more dangerous than Afghanistan or Iraq. Having done the Panama and Bosnia adventure, never had a Rocket attack or hit an IED. But I do recall daily, if not twice a day Rocket Attacks, hitting a land mine during my multiple Afghanistan tours.
    To put things in a better perspective, look at the casualty reports for all the conflicts and the increased number of suicides for post 9/11 Vets.

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    • Todd, my statement wasn’t that Iraq or Afghanistan were less dangerous places for troops than Bosnia or Panama. As is always the case–individual experiences in any one theater will vary. Some American troops in Bosnia, Panama, Somalia, and elsewhere were shot at and otherwise placed in immediate physical harm; other troops did not experience this. Many American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have clearly been in harm’s way, and the number of those killed and wounded are testament to this. There remains, however, a large number of troops who have served during the post-9/11 period in areas where they have received combat pay and all the benefits available to post-9/11 veterans without ever experiencing any threat of physical harm whatsoever. To say categorically that one generation of veterans deserves carte blanche for benefits while excluding others entirely because of casualty counts is not only absurd, it is wrong.

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    • Additionally, it is worth noting that the vast majority of veteran suicides ARE NOT post-9/11 veterans. While all veteran suicides must be taken seriously, I would be surprised if the disparity in recognition between pre- and post-9/11 veterans had nothing to do with this staggering fact.

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  8. I am proud of you and thank you for giving those of us who served in the Gulf War and Somalia and other pre-9/11 in-theater Vets props.

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  9. I am a Gulf War pre-9/11 Service Connected Disabled veteran currently fighting the VA and DOD for assistance as I know I need help, both physically and psychologically. I had to fight to qualify for Chapter 31 VR&E program so I hopefully qualify for a stipend to assist with my family as I qualify for so few Veteran programs just because I am a pre-9/11 Disabled Veteran. I will, upon completion of my educational goals and diploma, will still have to find a job. I have exhausted nearly every available veteran program in Florida. STOP THE PREJUDICE!!!! WE ARE ALL VETERANS REGARDLESS OF WHEN WE SERVED!!! Make ALL Veteran and Disabled Veteran programs be available to us all. And write your senator, congressman, representative, and even the President. And THANK YOU to ALL my Brother and Sister Veterans of all branches for your selfless service. LET US ALL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN!!!

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  10. I was so happy to find this post. I have worked with veterans for a few years, Particularly those who have mental healoth and substance use disorders. Many served during a time when there was no recognized conflict. So many of them have no service related disability. They returned home and for reasons that are too numerous to list, they found themselves in trouble, perhaps addicted and homeless. The point to all this is I am writing a research article that addresses the needs of these veterans and how counselors can help. A problem with academic research is you have to “proove” what you say by finding someone else who has said it or finding some statistic. My knowledge and experience is not enough. All I know is that many veterans “missed out” as one of the commenters noted, as these men and women do because they have no combat/ service connected disability. yet they still served and need help. Many have no insurance, typically because they are not working. Its fruitless to look online to see what services these non service connected veterans can receive. It is as if in order to get services you need a disability. That is plain stupid, plus its a great motivator for people to try to get disability just for the related services and income. Further it creases a distinction between service members related to combat vs non combat. Does any of this make sense or am I making it up in my head? I appreciate what all military professionals do. I am not a military member but come from a proud family of service ,members going back to WWI.

    Thanks for letting me express these thoughts.

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  11. I am proud that I served for the army and my country. I am pre 9/11 and feel somewhat forgotten. I am having difficulty finding programs that’ll help me out because I am pre 9/11

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  12. Finally someone else feels the way I do. Everything that I check into is for 911 and after. We all need the support for caregivers, free programs , ect. I wish I had a mortgage free home. It’s sad that medical retiree can’t get their retirement pay still (short the 20 yrs). But you can be wounded spend 3yr or more in recovery and that time counts. Yes I know life’s not fair.

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