When Being All You Could Be, Doesn’t End the Way You Thought It Would


I have been associated with the military my entire life; an association that spans three generations of service. In a previous blog I wrote about the phenomenon of the military being a statistical ‘family business’ and when I took an accounting of my own family’s military service—all Army, interestingly enough—the count went into double digits. During this time, I have seen first-hand the physical rigor required to ‘be all you can be’.

Most people are aware of combat-related physical sacrifices many American men and women have made in service—not only to their fellow Americans but also to countless people around the world—in disfiguration, scars, missing limbs, or limps. And thankfully, progress is being made on destigmatizing, recognizing, and treating the invisible scourge, PTSD.

But I don’t think the average American realizes how physically punishing just being a service member is. The invisible physical toll that regular military service takes on the human body is not as obvious. My father and father-in-law are two examples of this juxtaposition between the seen and unseen toll of military service.

My father-in-law was a nineteen-year-old draftee of the Korean War. The sole-surviving crew member of a blown-up tank, his injuries were so severe, he was passed over during triage having been assessed as ‘not going to make it’. Only when everyone who ‘had a chance’ was tended to and the medical team discovered, much to their surprise, that he was still alive, did they patch him back together—literally. He hopscotched from hospital to hospital, eventually making his way to Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco where he would spend three years, yes three years, in a hospital bed.

My own father, having already survived WWII and Korea was a much older soldier who, as a combat engineer in Vietnam, was repeatedly exposed to Agent Orange and managed to survive a couple of helicopter crashes while he there. He came home with diabetes, courtesy of the defoliant, and back injuries that healed initially but would plague him in later life. Neither of those things kept him from continuing to serve and he went on to complete a 33-year career. By the time they were done with their service, both men were classified as 100% disabled by the VA.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because one of my third-generation family members is facing an early retirement. Twelve years of active-duty service has taken such a physical toll on this soldier that he is being medically retired while in his twenties; and he is not an anomaly.

The everyday life of a soldier is punishing. From cramming themselves into the confines of tanks, APCs, or cockpits to jumping out of airplanes and rucking with tremendous amounts of weight and equipment, to exposure to nature (snake bites) and the elements (lightning strikes). It is the rare service member who makes it to the end of service without sustaining a tremendous amount of bodily wear and tear.

In fact, serving in the Army so often results in permanent injuries to backs, necks, knees, and ankles that being “broken” by end of service is a well-worn cliche.

I learned early that if I wanted to say something to my dad, I needed to get his attention, so he was looking at me before I said it, because it increased my chances of not having to repeat it. It took me awhile to realize why his hearing was so bad. At the risk of stating the obvious, wars are loud, and he had been in three of them. Training for combat is also loud which is why it’s not surprising that the top two disability claims made to the VA are for tinnitus and hearing loss respectively.

Although my father and father-in-law reached their disability status in different ways, they each did one thing well that a surprising number of veterans do not. They both did a good job of accessing the benefits for which they were eligible.

Why do so many veterans not seek their earned benefits? The main reasons are threefold; the first two are straightforward: many veterans simply don’t realize what’s available to them and the process is complicated and arduous.

The third reason veterans don’t seek earned disability benefits is not at all straightforward but in her excellent article, “The transition you never asked for: Finding meaning after losing your military career to disability,” Meredith Mathis eloquently voices another reason many veterans don’t seek disability benefits. She writes:

If you’re finding yourself unexpectedly or unwillingly facing medical discharge and the fear and uncertainty that comes with it, you are not alone. What felt like the end of the road turned out to be only the beginning of a new life – one filled with gratitude, connection, and purpose. Here are seven years of hard lessons and helpful tools I’ve gathered along the way which you might find useful in building a meaningful life.

I doubt any young man or woman who is called to serve our country thinks far enough ahead to anticipate physical wear and tear because of service. It likely comes with association, circumstance, and slow realization. I also imagine that thinking of yourself as a ‘disabled veteran’ does not come easily to someone who willingly served and made the necessary sacrifices. But Mathis gives great advice:

As a disabled veteran, regardless of what level of disability you’re assigned by the VA, you have access to a plethora of life-enriching resources. Don’t hesitate to make full use of them. Don’t let your current reality keep you from creating a new, better one for yourself. Take advantage of all the resources out there to help you on the journey and connect with people who can help you get where you want to go. Keep moving forward with hope. There is life on the other side of disability. Trust me.

While I can’t give the kind of first-hand insight that Meredith Mathis gives, as a lifelong, sideline observer and supporter of veterans who have sacrificed greatly, I can say this to all veterans: after you have been all you could be, one of the few and proud, or never given up the ship to ensure your fellow Americans’ safety, please, pursue the benefits you have earned. A grateful nation is more than happy to pay you back for your service. I can’t think of a better use for my tax dollars.