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On Perception

What does a veteran look like?

The last class I took for my MSW was called “Social Work With Military Members and Their Families.” It was a summer class. There were slim pickings for electives, and some students landed in the class because it was the only option that fit into their schedule. One gentleman in particular reveled in starting arguments with our professor to help pass the time. During one class he made the statement that “Veterans should not be allowed to become police officers because of their high risk for PTSD.” When asked to reflect on why he took the class he replied, “Well, we’re told that veterans are supposedly a population in need.” He used air quotations around the words “population in need.”

While speaking with a large company in New York City about their program to hire veterans, the coordinator described to me what an ideal job candidate would look like: a veteran with a solid resume (read: translated into civilian language) who’s hard working and perhaps just finished college using their GI Bill. She then added, “We don’t want anyone with a…diagnosis. You know? We still have to place these candidates in jobs and we don’t want to be worried about them being violent. I know that a lot of them come back with...what’s it called? Traumatic stress? PTSD?”

A well-intended hospital social worker labeled my husband “non-compliant” after a single interaction. He disclosed his mental health history to her, after which she spent over an hour insisting that he needed to be medicated, immediately. She did not ask about his personal history with psychiatric medication, nor did she offer alternative therapies. He politely declined her, again and again.

Quite often someone will wait until my husband leaves and then comment, “I thought it indicated on the form that he was a disabled veteran?”

A friend of mine judges the quality of a crowd based on how often she is mistaken for a civilian, or at best, a veteran’s spouse.

A student of mine complained about being called a terrorist by a drunk man at a bar in Houston. When he remarked that he was in the Army, the man didn’t believe him.

A classmate once spent several minutes describing a racist post one of her friends made on Facebook. She ended her statement with, “but he’s in the military, so you know what that’s like.”

In my last year of social work school I conducted a research study. I found that social work students without a personal or professional connection to a veteran were three times less likely to indicate interest in working with veterans or their families.

We are creatures of habit. We use complex systems, schemas hardwired into our brains and lenses built through culture and context, to arrive at the familiar and interpretable: our biases. So much of how we interact, veterans and civilians, is built upon layers of bias. Our perceptions parse us into heroes, liberals, patients, victims, opposites.

This broad problem of perception encompasses almost every struggle a veteran faces upon reintegration. The perception of a spouse who sees a changed person. The civilian who sees a warmonger. The activist who sees an enemy. The doctor who sees a patient’s deficits. The hiring manager who sees only liability.

In each of my blogs I’ve continued to ask what a veteran looks like. Perhaps I should ask what a civilian looks like. These questions of perception deserve more than the familiar and interpretable conclusions we so often prescribe them.