Is the Military Served by Pity Profiling?


“Most of our clients are veterans coming home from war who can’t find work,” said the nice lady from Catholic Charities at our church this Sunday. “They are on the edge of homelessness!”

My husband and I exchanged glances. How many homeless veterans could there possibly be in rural Virginia? In the nation, the news on veteran joblessness is actually pretty good. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for post 9/11 vets edged down to 9.0 percent in 2013. For male vets age 25 to 34, that’s only a little higher than the civilian unemployment rate of 7.5 percent. And there are a lot of programs out there designed to help veterans get jobs.

But that nice lady just got me thinking: why are veterans grouped with the homeless, the jobless, the poor, the hungry, the sick, the elderly and infirm? The needy genuinely require our help this time of year along with the nonprofits and charities who serve them. I am the first to believe that we as a country must not forget the sacrifices of our military.

Does pity bridge the civilian/military gap?

But has this kindness somehow turned into pity profiling of the military and our veterans? Is it helping us bridge the civilian/ military gap at all?

I’m not sure. Recently I saw a TV commercial from the Disabled American Veterans, an organization chartered by Congress whose Charitable Service Trust earned a score of 91 out of 100 from Charity Navigator. Their current campaign showed disabled vets with a caption that promised that "for just $19 per month" we could help vets live better lives.

There was something so sad about it I almost expected Sarah McLachlan to start singing like she did in the abused animal commercials (which resulted in more than $30 million in donations for the ASPCA.)

Is pity profiling more effective than awe?

Then again, I don’t know that the other kind of story we are seeing about the military is that much better. Instead of the pity factor, these stories rely on the awe factor.

I’m thinking of Army veteran Noah Galloway on the cover of Men’s Health magazine. His amazing physique would have won the 2014 Ultimate Men’s Health Guy title anyway. The fact that he had lost an arm and a leg to an IED while part of the 101st Airborne made him that much more amazing.

Stories of veterans who fill you with awe like that are just as common as the ones that fill you with pity. Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, together with Washington Post journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran, put together a remarkable selection of stories about the most outstanding, gifted, selfless people who ever graced the military since 9/11. Certainly, those individuals deserve to be honored.

Right there is my problem. Because I don’t really know a lot of military people on either end of the pity and awe spectrum. I do know genuinely stricken people in the military. I know a few godlike creatures. I know a lot of spouses who are damn near ready for sainthood.

Mostly I know hard working people in the middle. I know people who show up at the Pentagon each day and spend their years on spreadsheets and meetings.

I know people on ships who spend their lives repelling salt water and figuring out how to fix the CHT system so the toilets don’t overflow.

I know people who train endless batches of new Marines and soldiers or coach drill sergeants and drill instructors to do their best in a high pressure situation.

I know people who fix airplanes and helicopters and tanks and heavy artillery. I know a lot of military people whose jobs boil down to just plain  teaching.

All of us in the middle know the middle. We know the strength of the middle. But what the world sees most often is pity on one side and awe on the other with no one in between.

If we truly want to bridge the civilian/military gap the sheer size of middle needs to become more visible, more expected, more normal--without so much of the pity and awe factor to make it interesting.



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