This year, my biggest new year’s resolution is to keep my resolutions! To help me do this, I’ve decided to make my resolutions public. I figure if I let the world know what I’m thinking, it adds a degree of accountability for what I’m promising myself to do. New Year’s resolutions have grown to depress me. Recently, it hasn’t been a moment of rejuvenation–a fresh start. Rather, it’s been more of a signal of the stagnation of life and the quicksand which keeps me from improving as a person and a professional. But 2011 has put life back in perspective. It’s been a year of tremendous family loss, but also a great deal of personal gain. And I recognize how desperately lucky I am to have the life I have, and I’m not going to let a few impulsive decisions keep me from maximizing my potential to make myself a healthier and wiser person. At the end of the day, that’s all it takes to break a resolution, right? Impulsive decisions. The choice to eat the cookie instead of the apple; the extra slice of pizza instead of backing off and drinking water. Or how bout the decision to turn on a re-run of a mindless sitcom instead of read a book? I crave comfort. I love indulging myself. I think it’s a remnant of my time at war in Afghanistan: there’s no such thing as doing anything half-heartedly. It’s either all or nothing. When I want to take a break, I plan a massive expensive vacation. When I want to work, I pull all nighters and won’t stop till the project is done. When I want to eat…I eat till I can’t stuff my stomach with any more food. When I want to sleep, I plan for a hibernation. And when I want to be with friends, well, let’s just say I have been blessed with a lot of good loyal friends who put up with my neediness :)
Anyways- now that the psychology is revealed, let’s get down to the nit and gritty.
1) LOSE 20 LBS: Classic resolution, the weight loss. But for me, it’s a little serious. I gained about 20lbs of bad weight in 2011. A combination of things happened…the most important of which is that I took a job at West Point as an Admissions Officer, which requires me to be on the road almost 4 days out of every 5. Well, I shouldn’t say “requires”…I chose to push myself. I care about my job, my kids, and the cities/schools I get to mentor in. But that means a lot of eating out, not much working out, and a whole lot of travel induced stress. It also doesn’t help that I got promoted to Captain and am making enough money to afford a beer or two every now and then when I go out with buds. This resolution is arguably the most important, and has a couple different parts to it
-Eat right, especially on the road- Haven’t figured this out yet, but I should probably see a nutritionist
-Workout 3x a week: I got a personal trainer, I make him scream at me, it’s like “The Biggest Loser” (just kidding)
-Sleep at least 6hrs/ night. Yep wasn’t doing that before
-Limit alcohol intake to 3 drinks per week.
-Drink water at all meals
2) FINISH MY BOOK: I don’t like to talk about it too much, but I’m trying to write a manuscript and hopefully get it published. 100,000 words is no joke, but I know I can do this. I think this is going to be the year I actually get this done.
3) BUILD A SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS: Most people don’t know this, but I recently started a small IT company. We’re doing really well considering the fact that I’m running this thing parttime. But I decided this year that I work best when I am my own boss. I wanted to build something so that when I leave the Army, I don’t have to go from one corporation to another corporation. I am trying to build it up so that my transition can go seamlessly from military officer to small businessman without the whole “going into debt” thing. So wish me luck on that.
4) PUT 10 VETS BACK TO WORK. This, in my opinion, is the hardest one of all. Because I’ve learned that veteran unemployment in particular isn’t always just about the number of jobs out there. In fact, over the course of 2011, unemployment went from 9.6% to about 8.4% whereas veteran unemployment for those between the ages of 18-24 went from 22%-30%. I started a non-profit a while back called the National Foundation for Veteran Redeployment (www.nfvr.org) to try and offer training, transportation, and jobs to veterans in the energy and IT sector; but it’s hard to even lead the horse to water for a combination of reasons. A lack of knowledge is one, geographic inflexibility is another. But the reason that confuses and disturbs me the most is the unwillingness to take initiative after an enlistment of 4-6 years of a very difficult military experience. It’s hard to go from war to work. How do we get in the psychology of the veteran mindset to let the 49% who aren’t signing up with the VA–effectively removing governmental authority entirely from their life–how do we get those folks to come to the table? The other 51%, typically officers, senior enlisted, or folks with transferable skillsets seem to be doing well. It’s the enlisted doorkicker I’m worried about. If you know someone who needs help, let me know. I’ll make it my life’s mission to get em a job.
So thats my 2012. Sounds like a big challenge. But now that YOU know about it, hopefully it will make me more accountable :) I hate failing, but I hate it even more when its in the limelight!
Earlier last week, the Washington Post informed us that we are coming within striking distance of eliminating Veteran Homelessness. Over 33,000 homeless veterans are now off the street due to the voucher program which, including all administrative costs, will run us about $10,000 a veteran per year. That’s it. Far cheaper than jail. There are people who spend more on vacations, forget their own housing.
It’s a bit of good news in an environment that continually shifts and changes between horrible situations that veterans face versus this ambiguous cloud of pride and suppor they receive from the “sea of good will”.
But there’s something interesting which as made this effort so much more successful than all the rest that I’m not sure if people are paying attention to: they eliminated the requirement to go to drug rehabilitation before coming to the VA for housing. You see, previously, it was thought as a ridiculous handout to provide free housing to someone who was on drugs. Surely, they would never get a job if they were continuing to use. Why would Americans want to spend tax dollars housing those who are not making any attempt to ween themselves off of the national system?
But now, we might have a different set of priorities. We realize that keeping the vets on the street actually can exacerbate their substance abuse problems. I applaud the VA for making that decision. Finding the home means getting a good night rest, it means getting a shower, getting a shave or haircut. It means being able to wake up and start the day fresh. Solving veteran homelessness is the first step to solving veteran employment, which is the first step in solving veteran drug use. It seems backwards in nature because, to the typical American, NOT doing drugs means FINDING a job and therefore having the capacity to BUY a house.
I find it interesting how transforming our conceptions of what is “normal” or “effective” can actually help us better affect those in dire situations
Last week, CNN reported that a soldier coming home from combat tours had been shot at a homecoming/holiday party after verbal and physical engagement with a high school football teammate. The soldier was a wounded warrior, coming home from Afghanistan after being injured in a suicide bomb blast. That article went on to interview the soldier’s mother and we understood that this was a good person and someone who probably didn’t do anything wrong, or at least nothing that merited the drawing of a weapon against him.
The article was extremely sympathetic towards the soldier. And I understand completely, this situation is out of hand. But I’m not stranger to the stresses of returning back home. Transitioning from combat to comfort puts a strain on ones personality and our demeanors. What is usually a calm disposition in a combat zone can appear tense and angry in an everyday situation here at home. The forceful nature of small arguments in combat can appear like a threatening temper storm when put back home. My point isn’t that the soldier did anything wrong, but I can’t help but wonder what sort of transition challenges the soldier was facing that might have provoked the attack against him. Was his voice raised very loud? Was he making any gestures that appeared to be aggressive, though they may not have intended to be so?
The importance of this isn’t to isolate who is to blame in this shooting incident. The point of the analysis is to further understand the minutia of what returning veterans do in stressful situations and how our behaviors can either mitigate or irritate confrontations. Interesting discussions worth having around the dinner table at families who are affected by a loved one coming home. I’m interested to hear your responses.
Today is a big day for America. We are out of Iraq! It’s times like this when veterans tend to draw the greatest acclaim for the sacrifices they’ve made, yet receive the biggest headache of questions and media inputs questioning the validity and worth of their sacrifice. I’m thankful for having come back home after a brutal fight in Afghanistan, to a nation that is far better at disassociating a service member’s sacrifice from various opinions of the worth of the conflict.
The path to transition is still a long journey far from complete for our veterans back home. But considering where we have been as a country, and the changes our society has embraced, I’m sure that the 1million+ veterans of the Iraq campaign can hang their heads highly without fear of scorn or bearing society’s anger against the war they executed. This is by no means a post to insist that veterans don’t have it bad. On the contrary, I and many other activists fight tirelessly to get our boys and girls the services and resources they deserve to live productive lives in the democracy they volunteered to protect. But in a pluralistic manner, I’m happy today to look on the progress that veterans and their advocates have made over the past forty years or so in preserving a sense of respect for those who are coming home. Now, for us GWOT veterans, it’s our job to remain active and passionate so we can fight for the next generation of young vets that will come home when we are old and gray. We must consider them part of our own unit, and care for them as we would care for our teammates on the battlefield. That means getting involved, putting your money where your mouth is, and using our network to proactively help the veteran community as we disperse to our homes across America. The time for awareness has passed, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
I’m currently working on two projects to get vets back to work and to get them services they need to transition successfully. For those interested in getting involved, tweet/Facebook/comment or email me at Rajiv@RajivSrinivasan.net
Friends, I’ve been lucky enough to be published again in TIME Magazine discussing our nation’s drastically high veteran unemployment rate. I’d appreciate you taking a read and letting me know your thoughts! All the best.
I wrote a Memorial Day post that’s featured in TIME this week. I hope you enjoy:
Happy Memorial Day and warmest thanks to all who serve and have served.
My eyes always cringe at the sight of a homeless veteran. As I know the pains of war firsthand, it breaks my heart to see that people who have sacrificed so much for my freedom are suffering to such a degree. But it’s comforting to know that groups like the American Legion Homeless Veterans Housing Project in Jewett City, Conn., have been renovating old buildings and turning them into shelters for veterans for quite some time. They’ve raised millions of dollars from private businesses and caring citizens. The federal government has even said it would chip in the monthly rent of $875 for 15 veterans each year and provide additional funds for construction.
Unfortunately, in the recent round of intense budget cuts in Congress, this small funding for the homeless-shelter project was slashed, along with a total of $75 million in homeless-veteran benefits. As both a veteran and an American, I don’t believe that veterans’ programs should ever be isolated from budget cuts. After all, if the nation is hurting, it is we veterans who have sacrificed and will sacrifice first to protect her. But when I turn the pages of the budget to find a $7.4 million guaranteed commitment to fund a U.S. Army NASCAR sponsorship — and $20 million more from the National Guard to do the same — my blood begins to boil.
Advertising consultants may argue that the marketing statistics actually make the NASCAR project worthwhile, that it’s great “bang for the buck” in getting the Army slogan in front of millions of young auto fans salivating at the masculine thrill of modern sport. But is this really what we’ve come down to in our military-recruitment strategy? Have we boiled down the science of appealing to the core of the most dedicated young Americans to simple ad placement? To more-forgiving critics, this is just a miscalculation. To me, it is a telling exposition of how removed our policymakers are from the personal narratives of the men and women who execute their orders.
Running on my 24th month as a platoon leader — 12 of them in combat — I have had the chance to hear each of my soldiers’ life stories from before their enlistment. Some had seen tremendous success; others had seen horrific family pains I know I could never endure. When I ask my soldiers why they joined the Army, each of their answers is unique and far more sophisticated than a halftime commercial.
Michael’s dad was once in the Special Forces in Vietnam, and there was a distance between them for some time. Michael joined the Army against his father’s wishes to better understand him. Since then, their relationship has grown closer than ever.
Doug hadn’t graduated high school and was already in a bad crowd that would have probably led him to an early death or jail time. When his father died, there was no one in his family bringing home a consistent paycheck. He knew he had to make something of his life. He joined the Army.
Aaron is a college graduate, deeply interested in politics and energy independence. He chose not to do the ROTC because, in his words, adding up his enlistment bonus and the accelerated promotion points from his degree, it was more profitable for him to enlist than commission. He’s now one of the most senior and respected NCOs in the company, as well as a loving husband and father.
America’s service members are not one-dimensional people. The military’s target audience — those who have the fortitude to sign on the dotted line — are not simpletons who will be called to action by a race car. They are smart. They are thoughtful. They are not children but grown men and women, and they deserve to be treated as such.
That being said, when a smart, young high school student from Connecticut is considering enlistment, what sort of “ad placement” do homeless veterans on his neighborhood block present? What does that high school student think when he sees veterans unemployed or without health insurance?
For many homeless veterans, residual emotional and psychological effects of war are what led to their unfortunate circumstances. When we fail to support our veterans in dire conditions, we present military service as an unsustainable lifestyle to our prime recruitment audience. Those potential enlistees will deduce that they can better care for their families and themselves in other professions — and our front lines will be weaker for it. Thus, this isn’t just a veterans’-affairs issue but a national-security issue and should be regarded as one. With every soldier I’ve met, the common denominator in their decision to join the Army was a caring mentor whom they wanted to make proud. Rather than spending millions chasing stock cars to get attention, why don’t we invest in the mentors — the American veteran heroes — who can sell the honor and fulfillment of military service better than any athlete ever could?
I truly hope the American Legion Homeless Veterans Housing Project continues its venture. In the meantime, the manner in which our senior policymakers conceive the psyches of the soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who lay their lives on the line each day for this country needs a drastic shift. This oversimplification of our identities costs this nation money; it will eventually cost us military talent and perhaps even lives. If you know a soldier or veteran, don’t just thank them for their service. Take the time to understand why they joined — and why they stayed — in the military. It’s an issue we must all understand if we are to democratically influence the decisions that will protect our country. Otherwise, we’ll just be driving in circles around the same problem for years to come.
Available From: http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/taking-off-the-armor/
I trembled when I felt the suction of the sterile brace over my right eyeball. The brightly lighted operation room faded to black as the blood ceased to flow. My left eye, still functioning for the time being, followed the surgeon with a paranoia I had not felt in months. My Army-sponsored Lasik eye surgery was supposed to be a relatively simple procedure. The surgeon would cut a flap into my cornea, imprint the prescription on its inner surface, and finally replace the flap with a few steroid drops. I’d jump up, throw on some sunglasses, and would probably see 20/20 in a few days. But this wasn’t what I signed up for.
A sharp swipe of a needle quickly struck the contour of my eye. I felt it pierce the surface of my cornea, and I whimpered. Dear God, was I supposed to feel that? Should I say something? I still couldn’t see in my right eye. With the wet sensation around my brow, I believed I was bleeding.
To a third party, and even to myself as I write this, I might seem unnecessarily dramatic. After all, Lasik is a routine procedure. My doctor had performed thousands of these surgeries. It’s easy to say that my fear was in vain in retrospect, but in the moment, I desperately feared that the needle and blood I felt meant something went wrong and my eyesight was at stake.
A montage of images from the most impactful events in my life flashed through my mind, most from my recent tour in Kandahar. I remembered seeing the delicate smiles of children, finding humor even in their war-torn home. I recalled the crying girl, about 7 years old, who knelt by my side during a firefight in Zhari. I saw the way she raised her hands toward her mouth, as if to cover the cracks in her brave exterior. I remembered dozens of explosions, the bravery of my men and images bemoaning the confusion of combat. I saw the faces of lifeless friends, and the purging of emotion from the losses thereof. My eyes had served me so well in my life.
Overcome with fear and vulnerability, I lost control of my nervous function. I began to shake and twitch on the operating table as waves of post-traumatic stress unleashed itself in my body. But then something magical happened: a moment of kindness and warmth that I will never forget. A nurse sitting to my left reached for my arm. She held my hand, and squeezed it with reassuring compassion. My left eye shot to her face. Though her mouth and hair were both covered, I could tell she was a middle-aged woman, akin to my own mother. Her eyes darted to meet mine with an empowering stare as if to say, “Don’t worry, Rajiv, everything is going to be all right.”
I took a breath. In. Then out. My body slowly began to relax. My arms rested by my side, and I indulged in a rare feeling of delicate protection in the arms of another. It was a dramatic transition from terror to trust and security that I hadn’t felt in years. I felt like a small child, trusting my own mother and father as I received my first booster shot at the age of 5. As the surgeon regained his tempo, I finally sat motionless on the table, amazed at how quickly this woman’s touch calmed me down.
Communication through human touch transcends anything that can be said or heard; it’s therapeutic. I considered my weakest moments in Kandahar: the losses and injuries of my good friends and colleagues; devastating violence that haunts me to this day. There was no one who held my hand then. There was no one to wrap their arms around me and bring me back to that childlike sense of trust and security. Instead, I stomached that grief into a protective wall of masculine armor and walked back into the fight with my soldiers.
As soldiers, we fortify this masculine armor in combat to protect ourselves from the emotional demons which would otherwise consume our hearts and prevent us from executing our missions. We do it because war is tough and we need to be tougher. When we come home, we try to take that wall down and regain the ability to share and trust with our loving families. But to modern soldiers, the act of accepting compassion remains an implication of weakness. This isn’t because of our society, or even because of our institutional military — but simply because of the individual identities we hold as soldiers. We’re tough guys; tough guys don’t need hugs.
Well, it wasn’t until my Lasik surgery when I realized just how badly I needed that hug — and still need it. It took a lot more courage to admit the weaknesses of my masculine wall than it did to patrol the Zhari district for a year. For me, a weakness in that wall was a weakness in my character. It meant accepting my inability to cope with the combat I had seen, knowing that so many soldiers have withstood much more than I had.
For many junior leaders, admitting weakness means an admission of selfishness. Every hour spent in a counseling session means an hour spent away from training my men for their next tour in 2012. Every hour spent managing my anger means an hour away from the planning and resourcing needed to take care of my platoon. It means more work for my soldiers and platoon sergeant. Thus, like many leaders, I let my anger simmer, my focus wanders unchecked, and in my weakest moments, my heart goes without that much-needed hug.
Just because a soldier doesn’t have a diagnosis of PTSD doesn’t mean he does not have life-altering post-traumatic stress. The war zone is not limited to the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan. The fight does not end for a soldier when he comes home. He may shed his helmet and rifle, but he still carries his armor. The enemy no longer wears a uniform, but remains an elusive demon that reappears at the most inopportune times in our life. Each day we thank our soldiers for being strong for us. But, for our soldiers’ sakes, we now need to ask them for a different kind of strength: the strength to take off that masculine armor and accept weakness as one’s humanity. As our commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan begin to close, and our focus turns to our veterans’ well-being, we must remember that it’s not about giving soldiers hugs, the hard part now is making them accept the hugs.