By James Mackler
There is growing anger in this country as the “99 percent” continue to point out the widening gap between rich and poor. The “occupy” movement has spread from Wall Street to Nashville and beyond.
Lost among the discussion of high unemployment rates, bank bailouts and excessive corporate greed is the fact that there is a group much smaller than the 99 percent that bears the combined burden of economic inequality and “service inequality.” This “service inequality” is reflected in the fact that, at any given time, less than one-half of 1 percent of the adult population are serving in the active-duty military. Nine percent of the total adult population are military veterans. These are the “9 percent.”
The “9 percent” share the same economic challenges as the “99 percent,” but their burden is increased by the toll exacted from military service. The 9 percent make up 13 percent of the adults in homeless shelters. The 9 percent face an unemployment rate of 12.4 percent. The 9 percent account for 20 percent of all suicides in the U.S.
Although veterans are facing unemployment, homelessness and suicide in disproportionate numbers, a recent poll by the Pew Research Center indicates 70 percent of the general public admit that they have little or no understanding of the problems faced by those in the military. Even veterans themselves do not seem to recognize the negative impact of service on their civilian life. Rather, the vast majority of those who have served say that their military experience has helped them to get ahead in life. Eight in 10 would advise a young person close to them to join the military.
How can it be that the 9 percent have so little self-awareness at the same time that the 99 percent are becoming increasingly aware of their own economic disparity? The answer probably is deeply rooted in military culture. Warriors are trained to endure, even to embrace hardship. Self-sufficiency is a coveted trait. Asking for help can be a sign of weakness. The soldier’s mantra during hard times is to simply “suck it up.”
These are admirable traits in battle. They are counterproductive at home when jobs are scarce and Congress eyes veterans benefits as entitlements that can be cut in the name of balancing the budget. The time has come for veterans to refocus the energy that brought them home from the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. Veterans need to recognize that neither the 99 percent nor the 1 percent are going to advocate for them. It is time for veterans to mobilize on our own behalf.
We need to show employers that we have skills and experience that are unmatched in the civilian world. We need to show politicians that health care and retirement and a social safety net are fair compensation for our sacrifice — not entitlements. And if it comes down to it, after multiple deployments to some of the most inhospitable places on Earth, occupying Wall Street or Pennsylvania Avenue will be easy.