On the day that we supposedly honor the living and the dead of past wars, it is with great sadness – and perhaps more than a little shame – that so much lip service is paid to these brave defenders while the very real and turbulent plight veterans continue to suffer is ignored. Homelessness, suicide, and substance abuse are the laurels awaiting those lucky enough to return home after serving in war.
We see ourselves as members of modern nations, often (if not always consciously) measuring our success in terms of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s words from The House of the Dead:
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
This has evolved in the era of social justice to judgment based on the way we treat the “most vulnerable” in our midst; it has become the yardstick for how we treat the most minority of all minorities. Yet this does not seem to apply to veterans.
A Brighter Past
While devotees of modernity will proclaim the greatness of the age (obviously the one they themselves inhabit), and perhaps suggest that everything is better now, this isn’t quite true for those who have been in the service.
The Roman Empire was a brutal place in a brutal time. For the legionary soldiers, it was a career of hardship and pain and deadly risks to be taken, but at the end, those fortunate to reach their mature years were richly rewarded. Beginning in 105 B.C., Consul Gaius Marius removed the “land-ownership requirement” for those wishing to serve and thus created the very first professional, government-supported standing military in history.
The legionaries were provided with equipment, training, and most importantly, wages. The sheer amount of supplies and equipment they had to carry earned them the unenviable nickname of Marius’s Mules. The work was hard, but they were paid and fed.
What of retirement? What happened to these men who gave their best years to the growing empire? Under the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, the aerarium militare was formed. This was the backbone of keeping the veterans looked after; it was a permanent revenue source that paid out praemia (pensions) to all those who had served. It may not surprise the modern reader that the purse strings were controlled by administrators in a place known as Capitoline Hill.
Those who wanted it often had the option of taking a good piece of farmland as part of their pension, usually in a frontier location. The biographer Suetonius suggested that the praemia from the Caesars was actually a method of buying loyalty in the event of an uprising, rather than given out of genuine concern for a veteran’s well-being.
A Life After War
While not every soldier today sees the front line of battle, the contractual obligation they enter means that they could, at any moment, be sent into danger should the need arise.
U.S. military veterans are twice as likely as non-veterans to commit suicide (1.5 times more likely after adjusting for age and gender) and they are far more likely to experience homelessness than the standard population. But this isn’t a uniquely American problem. In the U.K., at least 10% of all homeless people are veterans.
There is a range of unexamined issues that lead to the poverty and plight of those who have risked everything. Until all these issues are addressed, we will continue to see veterans sleeping rough, continue to read of 20 plus veteran suicides per day.
- What is being done for soldiers nearing the end of their contracts to ensure they can integrate back into civilian life?
- How prepared are veterans for dealing with day to day issues of money management, banks, taxes, rents, mortgages?
- Are former soldiers aware of all the programs for assistance that are available to them?
- What civilian qualifications do they have that are immediately transferable to civilian work roles?
A Veteran Pension is payable after the age of 65, but most soldiers complete their service much younger than this. So, we have a long period of time between leaving the military to becoming eligible for a pension, and it is during these years that homelessness and suicide are most prevalent.
Upon leaving the military, many veterans have to compete for entry-level jobs and are at an immediate disadvantage if they have non-transferable skills. While civilian 40-somethings will have experience in their chosen sector, our vets often end up in minimum wage positions on the bottom rung of the ladder. How do you pay for your children, your home and take care of your spouse on a salary designed for kids living with their parents?
The first step in solving these horrendous issues begin within the military. Training, qualifications, civilian work experience, and job training schemes will all provide better life outcomes. Or perhaps, as the Romans did, a pension immediately upon completion of service and a plot of land that they can truly call home.
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