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Public Perceptions of Veterans Have Changed for the Better

by and on November 11, 2017 5:00 AM

Dr. Brian Clark, who heads the Office of Veterans at Penn State, will tell you “we were country when country wasn’t cool.”

His call back to the old Barbara Mandrell song references the changing perceptions of veterans in the U.S. since he started at the post in the late 1970s, on the heels of the Vietnam War.

He pointed out the country has gone from reports of disrespect to veterans returning home from war to modern issues of impersonating service members, also known as stolen valor.

“When I first began here, we were still in that bad time,” Clark said.

By the time the first Persian Gulf War rolled around, Clark said public awareness of veterans began to be aroused again after fading into the background during the 1980s.

“Veterans were probably on nobody’s agenda. It went from being actively antagonistic in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, to just be sort of ‘nobody really cares too much about it.’”

The U.S. has different types of veterans now, with a major change from that past being that instead of serving for a year in Vietnam, veterans can serve several tours in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere. It’s Clark’s office that will try to help them connect with their benefits when they come to Penn State, as well as lend an ear as they transition to civilian life.

That’s not always an easy task, Clark said. People in the military not only go through intense experiences, they’ve also been removed from civilian life for years.

Imagine a 23-year-old who has spent some of the last five years on patrols in the mountains of Afghanistan or servicing jets on an aircraft carrier who is then dropped onto a college campus in central Pennsylvania. It’s transitioning into an entirely different world.

“Obviously, as people who went into the service right after high school, they may have planned to eventually go to college,” he said. “Many of them haven’t thought that far ahead. When you’re 18, that’s a long way away. But even if you have, once you’re in the service so much stuff happens to you and you’re disconnected from the normal sources of information. This is our way of trying to provide a service to veterans. We think it’s part of our land grant mission as a university here.”

Clark said it’s partly a matter of going from a world of rigid structure to one without. That said, Clark also believes veterans to be very personally self-sufficient. By the time they’re ready to use their GI Bill and go to college, Clark said they may be very reluctant to ask for help. He said his office tries to help the entire person, not just get veterans signed up for benefits. Part of the support programming, for example, would be the freshman veterans seminar class.

Transitioning into an academic civilian life is furthered complicated by the fact that — like any other large population — veterans are a diverse group, Clark said.

VA benefits can apply to any level of education and will last for 36 months of schooling. About 10 percent of Penn State students using their benefits are graduate students.

The post-9/11 GI bill allows veterans to transfer their school benefits if they so choose. Instead of sending themselves to college, they can transfer benefits to one of their children or a spouse. There are a couple of hundred such dependents at Penn State.

If you have an image of the U.S. military as an organization that fights a war then sends everyone home, discard it. The military is consistently at about 1 million strong, meaning the veteran population is a continuous norm.

Even at the time of the inception of the Office of Veterans, Clark said there were about 11,000 Pennsylvanians coming out of the military each year.

Frank Christopher was one of the producers for WPSU’s “A Time to Heal,” focusing on bridging the gap between veterans and protesters during Vietnam. He was also among those who spearheaded the effort to bring the traveling Vietnam memorial wall to State College in October.

He described a profound change in perception of veterans from the 1960s to current day.

Christopher took the treatment of veterans further back to World War II, when he said returning vets received warmer welcomes than the generation after.

He said through his research he found that even some in the military community were not welcoming of Vietnam veterans, with a perception that those veterans had lost their war.

But while the perceptions have improved, and people appear to be more understanding that the average veteran isn’t one of the decision-makers, Christopher said the nation is more disconnected from the wars in the Middle East since there’s no draft.

“That democratizes the experience of war,” he said, and the draft touched millions of people because of that.

Now, there’s a perception that it’s “someone else’s fight.”

Polling data show Americans have huge misconceptions when it comes to modern veterans. According to a poll by Greenber Quinlan Rosner Research of 1,381 adult Americans in 2014, 60 percent of people believed veterans were more likely to be unemployed than civilians. In fact, the unemployment rate at the time was 7.8 percent versus 8.2 percent for those ages 18-44 for 97 of the 100 months studies.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is often linked with veterans, yet there are millions of U.S. civilians who never served in the military that suffer from it.

It’s not all negative from the public’s perception, however. The Roper Center at Cornell found that 58 percent of people polled believe veterans do not receive enough benefits, up from just 32 percent in 1947.

A 2007 poll from WNBC/Marist showed that 20 percent of people thought veterans from the Iraq War got less respect than veterans from previous conflicts. Another 43 percent said they had gotten the same amount of respect and 37 percent said they got more.

Perceptions of veterans may be improving overall, but it’s clear there are still lingering problems. There is the “broken hero” image that advocates for veterans are always fighting, and it doesn’t help that many American’s connection to the war may not be through letters or phone calls from loved ones, but action heroes on TV.

Christopher’s final word was that it was easy to thank military veterans for their service, but we may not grasp what that service entails because it’s not a part of our lives.

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

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