Americans are Viewing Veterans All Wrong

as originally posted on blogs.va.gov

by Chris Marvin

What assumptions do you make when you encounter a homeless person?

According to a recent survey, when shown a photo of a man that appears to be homeless, one third of respondents label him as having a mental health issue. Nearly one-in-five believe that he has a criminal past. And, the second most popular response — after the 87-percent of people who identify the man as homeless—almost half of respondents label the homeless-looking person as a military Veteran.

Those who assume that a homeless man is a veteran are wrong nine times out of ten. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Veterans account for less than 10 percent of the total U.S. homeless population.

On behalf of the Got Your 6 campaign, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research conducted an online survey in May 2014 of a representative sample of 1,381 adult Americans nationwide. The results demonstrate that perceptions of Veterans are starkly misaligned with reality. And this perceived notion of who America’s Veterans are is not only troubling but also can potentially have a negative impact reintegration.

If the average American is more likely to associate homelessness with veteran status than with mental health issues or a criminal past, what other negative stereotypes might our society hold about the men and women who have served our country?

The study also revealed troubling biases and cultural misconceptions about the health and employment status of returning veterans. For instance, more than 80 percent of Americans believe that post-9/11 Veterans are more likely than civilians to suffer from a mental health issue, and over 60 percent think post-9/11 veterans are more unemployed than civilians.

Here’s a reality check: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Veterans have a higher employment rate than civilians 97 of the last 100 months. In fact, the current 12-month average unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans is 7.8 percent, versus 8.2 percent for all civilians aged 18-44—a roughly comparable population set. The “Veteran unemployment crisis” that we’ve all read about simply doesn’t show up when the data is actually examined.

Mental health is a more complex issue. It may be true that combat Veterans, who more frequently encounter traumatic events, are more likely to deal with specific issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of this, many Americans view PTSD as an issue that is unique to the military and Veteran communities. But let’s put that in context.

According to the National Institute of Health, 7.7 million Americans deal with PTSD in a given year. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that between 300,000 and 500,000 service members have dealt with PTSD across twelve years of combat. Thus, conservatively, more than 95 percent of Americans with PTSD are civilians. Moreover, less than 10-percent of those who have served in the military since 9/11 have dealt with PTSD at any time—and many of them have fully recovered. PTSD is a human condition that sometimes affects Veterans, not the other way around.

In general, the survey revealed that Americans perceive most Veterans as “broken” or “damaged.” This has become the cultural norm. The results of predispositions like this are detrimental to veterans as they reintegrate and are damaging to a society that fails to recognize Veterans’ potential.

Unfortunately, cultural perceptions can be tightly held and difficult to shift. Looking for solutions, the survey explored the role of the entertainment industry and revealed that film and television play a pivotal role shaping the public’s perception of Veterans. Nearly half of the sample population reported that the entertainment industry has a strong influence on the way they perceive Veterans. And not surprisingly, when asked how Veterans are currently portrayed in film and television, respondents were more likely to say something negative than something positive.

The study showed that portraying veterans as “broken” on television leads the audience to believe that Veterans are broken in real life. However, depicting a Veteran as either a “hero” or in a neutral way elicits increased positive perceptions.

The big breakthrough was that the study showed that the rarely used neutral portrayal was actually more credible than the often-used hero portrayal. The neutral portrayal depicted veterans as everyday Americans who are assets to the community—images that are more in line with the data on the Veteran community. For respondents, this resulted in more and stronger positive feelings than even the hero depiction.

The other encouraging finding is that cultural perceptions of veterans aren’t necessarily deeply held. Initial impressions of the word Veteran led to very literal interpretations—such as “served in the military” and “defended our county.” This indicates that perceptions of veterans are not tied to strong beliefs and there are opportunities to shift current thinking.

Perhaps most importantly, respondents believe that a post-9/11 veteran is five times more likely to be a strong leader or a valuable community asset than an average comparable citizen. So, while the cultural perception of the damaged veteran prevails, Americans still see potential in those returning from military service.

The stereotypes and misconceptions that Americans hold for Veterans create a barrier for successful reintegration. Whether it occurs in a neighborhood, a workplace, a school, or a Hollywood writers’ room, we must begin to reshape the way we think and talk about Veterans.

On Veterans Day, we think about how you can help shift the conversation in America that will lead to more accurate perceptions of Veterans. A national narrative that helps Americans become less likely to relate homelessness, unemployment, and PTSD to Veteran status will empower those leaving the military and reintegrating into their communities. In the long run, the country will benefit and be strengthened by the increased leadership, team building, and problem solving skills that Veterans will inevitably bring home with them.