With political divisiveness increasingly fracturing American society and distrust of the military on the rise, it might be up to service members to take the first step to bridge that gap, veteran activists say.
During an online roundtable Tuesday hosted by the Veterans and Citizens Initiative, representatives of a variety of groups talked about the military-civilian divide, and how to fix it. The nonpartisan group of veterans, military families and military support organizations formed last year to encourage a peaceful post-election period.
Sometimes, retired Marine Col. Joe Plenzler said, veterans lament the public's lack of understanding of what they've gone through, without making their own effort to engage with their community. In fact, he said, veterans have an obligation to serve and be leaders in their community.
"I have very little sympathy for vets who do the hangdog thing, like 'Oh they don't get me,'" Plenzler said. "Come on, man. The only way they're really going to find out [what it's like for vets] is if we take those active steps to engage. We can't just sit back on our heels and expect America to come to us, like some entitled class of people."
And there are more ways vets can serve the community than just as police officers, firefighters or emergency medical technicians, Plenzler said. Vets could teach at their local community colleges and directly help young people to improve their lives, he suggested, but also help them understand where service members have come from.
Lauren Augustine, vice president of government affairs for Student Veterans of America, echoed those thoughts, and said veterans and civilians have to look for things they have in common to build relationships.
"It's on all of us to be mindful that anybody you interact with is going to have a different lived experience from us," Augustine said. "If we have the idea that it's 'us versus them,' that's a terrible starting point to begin with. You've got to stay positive in how you start that conversation across the board."
Chapters of her group on college campuses try to build relationships with other campus groups, including student government organizations, LGBT groups and fraternities and sororities, she said. This not only allows the groups to work together, she said, but also creates natural opportunities for student veterans to share their stories.
An SVA leader once organized a GI film festival at Florida State University, she said, that included a film and discussion about sexual trauma in the military. Augustine said a sorority member in that audience drew a parallel between the military's sexual assault problem and the Greek world's effort to stamp out that problem, which opened a dialogue and cooperation between the groups.
"We know there are problems we can solve together, and there will be natural opportunities to share both of our stories along the way," Augustine said. "The two communities, who you would never think have anything in common, they've really come together to address sexual assault and harassment on campus."
VCI's recent survey showed a lot of work has to be done to heal American society. When asked if the differences between Americans were so great they cannot come together, the 6,000 survey respondents became considerably more pessimistic over the last two years. In November 2018, 76% felt the differences weren't that great and 24% felt they were. But by December 2020, that difference had shrunk to 65% vs. 35%.
Researchers conducted two online polls last year and weighted the responses to account for differences in factors, including race, age, gender and region.
The survey found 94% of Americans felt the nation is divided politically, and 92% were worried for the future of their country -- a sentiment that was shared equally across political parties.
And though 51% of Americans felt it was possible for the country to come back together this year, only 39% felt it was likely, the survey found.
However, the survey found 61% of Americans felt veterans were generally good role models for citizenship, and 56% felt the same about military families.
Most Americans also agreed that the nation needs to come together and support one another, the survey found, and that veterans and military families were largely seen as trustworthy messengers for that sentiment.
However, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and the involvement of multiple military veterans dealt a noticeable blow to the public perception of veterans' trustworthiness, the surveyors found in a follow-up online poll of 2,000 more conducted in early March.
Sarah Streyder, executive director of the Secure Families Initiative, a group that advocates for military spouses and family members, said the downturn in confidence in the military is frustrating but understandable -- for more reasons than just the Capitol riot.
Not many people serve in the military, Streyder said, and service members often come from multigenerational families, meaning fewer and fewer people have a connection to the military. And, she pointed out, not only was the military mobilized to respond to protests last summer against racial injustice, but some local law enforcement used surplus equipment provided by the military.
"Many over-policed communities find themselves on the receiving end of weapons that they rightly associate with the armed forces, whether or not it's in the hands of a service member," Streyder said. "I worry that when my spouse commutes back and forth from work in uniform, that that visual is going to either cause someone discomfort based on the affiliation, or cause someone to treat him with distress. It's hard for me to say that it's ... an illogical reaction to current events."
Streyder and other panelists agreed veterans and military families can help spread positive messages, such as by encouraging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The military has tapped more than 6,000 troops to help administer the COVID vaccine to citizens at multiple sites around the country, though not all have yet deployed. The teams vary in size, but a single team can administer anywhere from 250 to 6,000 shots per day.
And because of their personal experiences, Streyder said, they're uniquely suited to the task.
"We look like the diversity of America," Streyder said. "We move around a lot and get exposed to different ways of living, which I think can help us bring new ideas to new places. Especially civilian spouses, we've had to build really advanced networking skills in order to simply make friends at a new base home.
"And I think that makes us really good at bridging connections with people we may have polar opposite backgrounds with. And gosh, we could really use a lot more of those skills and civic discourse these days, right?"