Survey: young veterans struggle to adjust to civilian life

Vets, non-vets say finding work, coping with psychological problems among challenges young veterans face upon returning home from war

By John Sugden

More than 8 out of 10 young U.S. military veterans surveyed said transitioning from the military to civilian life has been difficult, according to research conducted by journalism students at American University.

Students surveyed veterans between the ages of 18 and 29 about the experience of young veterans returning home from military service. The students also asked civilians the same age similar questions.

The survey results offer a poignant picture of the complicated post-war reality for young veterans. As recognized by both veterans themselves and their civilian counterparts, young veterans experience difficulty finding work, adjusting to a classroom environment, and coping with the mental and emotional impact of war.

The online survey for veterans drew 68 full responses, while the sample size for the non-veterans survey was 191. Although the sampling techniques do not qualify the survey samples as scientifically representative, the results largely support similar research.

As a part of the veterans survey, respondents were given an open-ended question asking them to describe the biggest challenge young veterans face readjusting to civilian life. Responses to this question were anonymous, allowing respondents the opportunity to be candid.

According to one veteran, the most difficult part about coming home was “fitting in and being understood. You feel like you’re still in the military mentally but have to try and train yourself to think as a civilian.”

Another veteran said the most challenging part was “connecting with fellow students and dealing with young people.”

Respondents — both veterans and their non-veteran counterparts — commonly answered that fitting in with civilians both professionally and socially represents the biggest challenge for veterans returning from military service. Many also said that young veterans often have trouble deciding on their next step — whether that be entering the workforce or enrolling in school.

One non-veteran wrote that the biggest challenge facing young vets returning from military service is “[k]nowing what to do with their life when they get back: Go to college? Get what kind of job? Live where?”

Do vets suffer from psychological problems more than their civilian counterparts?

When asked directly about post-traumatic stress disorder, nearly 9 out of 10 veteran respondents reported knowing at least one person with PTSD. In addition, 82 percent of veterans surveyed said young veterans are more likely to have psychological or emotional problems than their civilian counterparts.

Only one veteran respondent said young veterans were less likely to have these types of issues.

The non-veteran survey posed a similar question, with more than 95 percent of respondents saying that young veterans are more likely to have psychological or emotional problems. The figure was notably higher for non-veterans without a close family member in the military — 97 percent — than those with a close connection to the military — 91 percent.


Infographic by Kelly C. Chase

These findings are supported by a 2010 Gallup study. According to the study, U.S. military personnel who deployed to foreign wars are more likely to be diagnosed with depression than those who did not serve overseas, “with the largest percentage of diagnoses among those aged 18 to 29.”

There are other factors to consider though, according to Terri Tanielian, a senior research analyst at the nonprofit RAND Corporation. In 2008, Tanielian and her colleagues published an extensive study of the psychological and emotional consequences of deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. She has since continued studying the issue.

According to Tanielian, while age can be a predictor of problems, exposure to traumatic experiences is a far better indicator of PTSD.

“The most significant predictor of post-deployment mental health issues were experiences individuals had while deployed,” she said.

Tanielian also explained that there has been a culture change in American society and the military in terms of attitudes toward PTSD. She suggests that a higher frequency of reported cases from young veterans could be attributed to a newfound confidence in coming forward.

Unemployment a major concern for vets

In response to the “Half the Battle” survey, veterans and non-veterans said young vets are more likely to be unemployed — 50 and 57 percent, respectively. In addition, 41 percent of veteran respondents said young vets are more likely than their non-veteran counterparts to be discriminated against in the hiring process.

“Military skills do not transfer to civilian life,” one veteran wrote in response to the survey. “Essentially you come home as an unskilled worker in a bad economy.”

Recent research suggests these assumptions are valid. According to research gathered in a 2012 joint congressional study, the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans was 12.1 percent, higher than the non-veteran average of 8.7 percent. Additionally, nearly a third of veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 are unemployed.

“In general, younger workers are experiencing higher rates of unemployment than older workers,” the study concluded, “but at 30.2 percent the unemployment rate among young veterans is nearly double the unemployment rate for non-veterans the same age.”

News and entertainment media wrong about vets

According to the “Half the Battle” survey, 87 percent of veterans said they believe the news media do not portray young veterans accurately. Additionally, nearly half of the veteran respondents believe entertainment media portray young veterans negatively.

Civilians surveyed also expressed skepticism of the news and entertainment media, with the majority of them saying both portray veterans inaccurately. For example, 80 percent of non-veterans without a connection to the military said the news and entertainment media paint an inaccurate picture of military veterans.

“Half the Battle” specifically asked veterans about women serving in the military, an issue covered extensively in the news media after the Pentagon removed a ban on women serving in combat in January.

  • 45 percent said the decision will hurt the military

  • 32 percent said the decision will have no impact

  • 24 percent said the decision will help the military

Which generation of vets received a better welcome home?

Overall, 53 percent of young veterans surveyed said current veterans are treated better than those of earlier generations.

The statistics are more telling, however, when broken down by war era:

  • 84 percent said young veterans are treated better than those from the Vietnam War era

  • 40 percent said they did not know/had no opinion when it came to a comparison with the Korean War era

  • 50 percent of young veterans said they are treated worse than their World War II-era counterparts


Infographic by Kelly C. Chase

The survey results come as no surprise to American University history professor Allan Lichtman. After all, he says, World War II veterans are considered part of the “greatest generation.”

Lichtman draws a parallel between World War II veterans and today’s veterans, noting that those of the Second World War were the first beneficiaries of the GI Bill.

Additionally, he says he is not surprised by the Vietnam results, noting that it is the only major war in recent decades and was therefore heavily scrutinized by Americans.

For better or worse, Americans are unlikely to forget the wars of the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Just as Lichtman said of Vietnam, they are “seared into the memory of Americans.”

Angela Modany contributed reporting to this story.

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This project, produced by journalism students at American University, explores the experiences of young veterans as they transition from soldiers to citizens.

Word Clouds From Veteran Survey

What did you miss the most about home?
What did you miss2

Why did you enlist?
Why did you enlist in the military.

From soldier to civilian - what problems did you face?
Challenge of transitioning to civilian life

What difficulties did you face upon returning to college?
Difficulties on returning to college

Word Cloud From Non-Veteran Survey

What challenges do vets face coming home? Non-vets

Top 5 questions veterans told ‘Half the Battle’ they hate being asked:

- Did you kill anyone?
- Do you have PTSD?
- Did you see anybody die?

- Did you get shot at?

- Was it hot?

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