Continuing Ed

Why Collaboration Matters: An Epidemic of Isolation

Why do community collaboratives matter? That’s the question we’re addressing in a three-part series on veteran collaboratives. It’s not enough to simply have resources available in a community—access and outcomes must be considered as well. The experience of the veteran matters not only for their satisfaction, but for the outcomes that can be achieved by a coordinated approach.

When service members join the military, they uproot from communities where they are integrated, and enter a very structured, intentional environment into which they integrate systematically. When veterans come home, we encourage them to reach out to resources government agencies, nonprofits, colleges, or even jobs. But veterans can’t integrate into an nonprofit, government agency, or resource. It’s neither sustainable nor healthy to try, and it’s fundamentally not how being a human in a community works. Of course, our health and survival needs dictate a need to integrate with healthcare, financial, educational, and employment institutions and, often, government programs. But that leaves a glaring gap: social integration.

Let’s talk about belonging.

Transition can feel lonely. You’re no longer part of a unit, with a government-issued sense of professional—and often, personal—identity. I know, I’ve been there myself. You also might not feel quite like a civilian anymore. You’ve seen and experienced things in your service that might make you feel disconnected from your old high school or college buddies. Further, our “drink water, drive on” mentality can lead us to hide struggles, white-knuckling through this stressful transition solo.

Post-transition isolation isn’t a small problem. In 2008, nearly all (96 percent) of a group of post-9/11 combat veterans surveyed reported that they were interested in receiving services to ease “community reintegration problems,” even though they were already using VA primary care or mental health services. More recently, in studies published between 2014 and 2016, veterans of the post-9/11 wars reported adjustment difficulties at rates between 61 percent and 68 percent.

  • 51% of military family respondents indicated that they did not feel a sense of belonging within their local civilian community and 53% felt they were not valued members of the local community
  • Veterans have a suicide rate 50% higher than those who did not serve in the military.
  • A recent study of veterans serving during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars between 2001–2007 found that both deployed and non-deployed veterans had a significantly higher suicide risk compared to the U.S. general population.
  • Deployed veterans had a 41% higher suicide risk compared to the general U.S. population.
  • Non-deployed veterans had a 61% higher suicide risk compared to the general U.S. population.
  • The suicide risk was higher among younger, male, white, unmarried, enlisted, and Army/Marine veterans; however, predictors of suicide were similar between male and female veterans.
  • The rate of suicide was greatest within 3 years after leaving service.

Ultimately, connecting veterans to their organic supports--and growing supports for veterans without--is what will create sustainable relief from this sense of isolation. No one organization, however, can achieve that. It’s important to place the veteran at the center of this conversation, because some of the things we might think encourage “belonging” can actually create distance. Young veterans increasingly eschew traditional VSOs in favor of active, service-oriented organizations. Veterans in recovery can feel isolated at organizations centered around a bar. Rhetoric like “heroes” and “warriors” can deter veterans who don’t identify with those labels.

The importance of veteran belonging can’t be understated.  Dr. Brené Brown highlighted the fundamental human need to belong in Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone; Sebastian Junger’s 2016 Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging tackled the issue of belonging in military transition. Connecting veterans to appropriate social resources will require participation of stakeholders outside the veteran space, and the solution will look different for each community.

Questions to ask your collaborative:

  • How is your community tackling the crisis of disconnection?
  • What voices may be missing from your community’s discussion?

Kent Peterson serves as Senior Advisor, National Partnerships at National Veterans Intermediary. A strategist with 25 years of experience guiding organizations to clarify goals and foster partnerships, Kent combines his expertise in collective impact with military cultural competency to identify needs, frame problems, and develop collaborative solutions.