“I preach darkness. I don’t inspire hope—only shadows. It’s up to you to find the light in my words.” ― Charles Lee
Trusting someone with common background is a widespread human phenomenon. For a variety of reasons, we tend to gravitate towards those who we see ourselves in. Not surprisingly, this is also true in the veteran macrocosm. Veterans partner with other veterans across a variety of contexts. We start businesses together. Push resumes to the tops of piles. Collaborate on research. Make YouTube videos with each other. Donate money and support non-profits. Build complete relationships on the most minimal interaction.
In a remarkable variety of ways, we show up for each other. All the successes of some of the more well-known, collective partnerships give us plenty of license to say veterans treat each other well. Personally, I’ve been the recipient of such treatment and try to pay it forward where and whenever possible.
Yet, for every success story there is a cautionary tale. Veterans are, after all, humans. Within our ranks we have the entire spectrum of humanity, from sainthood to sociopath and everything in between. There are plenty of pieces and pages highlighting the remarkable things veterans are doing for each other. Shining light in that direction is much needed and it must occur. However, there is a shadow side to that practice. In presenting, a pretty picture, we whitewash the reality of our community where there is the incredible and the good but also the bad, ugly, and criminal. Calling forth the good does inspire but it does not, also, eradicate its counterpoint. In fact, I worry at times, it lulls most into a false sense of complacency.
Someone once told me to never blindly trust another veteran. I’m not sure that is entirely bad advice. I think we are so quick to trust one another that sometimes we fail to have contracts drawn up, boundaries established, and ourselves protected. The sentiment behind that is lovely but the result is usually not. While this also happens rampantly with and between civilians, I think the feelings of betrayal are greater when it’s veteran to veteran. The result is a deeper wound left behind.
More often than we’d like to talk about, veterans are taking advantage of other veterans. While not necessarily out of malice, it’s happening across sectors. In the business world, this sometimes manifests as an inability to separate themselves from either their product, their bottom line, or their life experience. Other times, veterans fail to deliver on the promises made to other veterans due to negligence, mishandling, misunderstanding, or hubris.
Veterans also tend to dare more greatly in their pursuits. Simply, we dream big. By and large, this is a positive quality and entrepreneurial veterans are largely successful. Unfortunately, sometimes we also fail, when that happens we tend to fail in bigger ways.
In the non-profit space, the sea of goodwill has been bountiful and seemingly unending. Just as there are some exceptional veteran businesses, there are some exceptional veteran non-profits. However, there is also misuse of funds, misbehavior, and a pridefulness that prevents partnership and the sharing of resources. Additionally, many are not employing metrics to measure their impact. Money is going in, programs are coming out, with little indication of whether or not they are actually doing what they purport to be doing.
At times I wonder if when we were transitioning out we were all coerced into unknowingly signing a non-disclosure agreement regarding speaking out against other veterans. That’s the only way I can rationalize the lack of dialogue around these issues. Those that do speak up are seen as disloyal. Why do we think it’s a betrayal to call out those that are betraying?
I understand that few want to contribute to the broken veteran stereotype or other negative portrayals of veterans. For that, we can all be thankful. Yet, in sweeping our bad behavior under the rug we are actually doing just that. It’s some bizarre trick we are pulling on ourselves. It’s the quintessential sleight of hand, drawing the audience to look at right hand so they fail to see what’s happening with the left. Except it’s not a bunny we are pulling out of a hat, but a perpetuation of the very stereotypes we claim to abhor.
This matters, because very real psychological distress can arise from stereotypes, their perpetuation, and the stress of unintentionally confirming them. The risk of spreading a negative stereotype about an individual’s racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group is referred to as stereotype threat. This type of stressor can lead to anxiety and impact a person’s ability to perform, preventing them from doing their best. Moreover, it is most likely to occur, and to have detrimental effects, when a person highly identifies with the group to which the negative stereotype applies.
To break it down a bit: if a veteran strongly identifies as a veteran — meaning that being a veteran or having a military identity is something they closely associate with — they might be more prone to engaging in behavior that inadvertently confirms the negative stereotype(s) held against them. It holds that in failing to confront the bad in our community and police ourselves we are doing the very thing we are trying not to do. What’s worse is you don’t have to buy in to own the consequences. Meaning, you don’t have to ascribe to the stereotype for it to do damage.
So while the good will continue to do good and invest in fellow veterans, the bad continue to remain unchecked preventing the full potential of our community from being realized. We all have a part to play in effecting change. “To make the darkness conscious, is to turn the shadow into the light.”