International Stabilisation Force members of Task Group GYRO 11 welcome the arriving New Zealand soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen of Task Group GYRO 12 to East Timor with a traditional Maori Powhiri (welcome ceremony) on Thursday, 03 November 2011.

What do Veterans Want?

ANZAC Day draws bigger, poppy-wearing crowds every year, politicians flock to photo opportunities, new history books are released, odes are read and bugles played.

As the number of World War II veterans decline, the focus has turned to the growing number of people referred to as ‘contemporary veterans’ – those who have served since the Vietnam War. This year, the RNZRSA is running a slick fundraising and awareness campaign with the theme ‘Not All Wounds Bleed’. This campaign highlights the fact that mental health injuries are the most common but least understood of all wounds suffered by New Zealand service personnel. I agree with that but I’d like to take the thinking one step further and ask “What do veterans actually want?”

I ask that not to discredit the many good organisations and causes that exist to help veterans but because the vast majority are not engaged with any of those efforts. They are simply getting on with their lives. However, that doesn’t mean that they are content with their lives.

I don’t claim to have any special knowledge with which to answer this other than having helped many service people resettle into civilian life. The most common theme is the difficulty in establishing a new sense of purpose and I include all those who have served, not just those who have deployed, in this group. I recommend you read Steve Rose’s excellent blog post on this.

It’s been 16 years since I hung up my uniform and I still find this emotion takes me by surprise from time to time. A big party on 25 April every year does nothing to address this. Neither will money, store discounts or people saying “Thank you for your service”. They’re all nice gestures but what will actually make a difference is as highly individualised as we are.

The two common threads that link all veterans, in my opinion, are our desire to see an end to conflict (we know the actual price); and an ongoing acknowledgement of the worth of what we learned in the Forces. When we see the same politicians who pose for selfies with vets then make poor choices in international relations and national security, it is soul-destroying.

The second point is, perhaps, the most troubling. We have employers happy to turn up to ANZAC Day wearing their Grandfather’s medals but not prepared to hire a veteran because the human resources manager can’t relate their skills to a civilian role. This large group, which I call NIMOs – ‘Not In My Organisation’ – is a constant reminder for veterans of the gap between their life in uniform and society at large. The Defence Force also has a role to play in bridging this gap.

I think it’s great that effort is being put into healing the wounds, both visible and invisible, of our veterans. It can’t stop there. Society needs to decide how it is going to apply the mantras of “We Will Remember Them” and “Lest We Forget” to both the fallen and living veterans for the remaining 364 days each year.