Adulting is hard. If you have lived on this earth at least forty years or more and engaged in the hopes and failures of this world, you know this. You also know that it takes unexpected kindnesses to make the super hard days tolerable and the next day get-up-able. Community is key.
In a country with an all-volunteer military, and one where large swaths of the country rarely participate in military service, what is the appropriate way for the country to support our service members? How do we reconcile our good intentions with our general ignorance of what military service means? How can we provide help in a society that is beyond discourse? How do can we collectively display our gratitude and our compassion?
We legislate and we donate.
In New York, we throw money at any challenge or societal problem. Money generates options for people. And New Yorkers know the power of money. A distinctly philanthropic town, you can raise money for any number of things here. In the span of two hours at any Midtown hotel ballroom you can raise a couple of million dollars for anything from early childhood education to animal welfare. Helping veterans, is of course also on the list.
In New York City, money equals help. Charities know how to harness the power behind the emotion of helping. Annually, charities aggregate donor monies for their programs and then pass out the funds to the deserving within their programs. In a bit of a formula, aide recipients are frequently asked to give video testimonials about the life saving program provided by the charity. These videos are then played on the big screen at nearly every annual fundraiser. It’s a formula that works and touches the hearts covered under many a sponsor’s tuxedo or glittering dress at a $25,000-a-table event. The sponsors did good that night. They supported a cause, while some in their station choose not to help. Donors do make an important difference in our community and they do it regularly. Charities run on the money of the wealthy. Their work is important.
Washington DC legislates a similar kind of loving care. Too many veterans are homeless; create a housing program. Too many veterans are committing suicide; create a hotline. Service members are being sexually assaulted; create a task force.
But neither the Midtown Donor, nor the DC Bureaucrat can solve the overarching problem. They don’t pick you up and hold you by the hand. By design, they cannot. They provide essential help at the necessary distance to administrate large programs. You can’t fixate on one person’s problem when hundreds of thousands need help. Large-scale benevolence is important but impersonal. Specificity is the enemy of aide programs, because they can only function to help the majority of people through the commonality of the challenges. That kind of assistance – private or governmental – is beautiful, kind and necessary but it is only part of the equation. Individuals also need to care.
It takes a caring neighbor taking you out for a coffee when you’re not great company. Your cousin calling to invite you out again, even though you’ve declined the past nine invitations. It is necessary for the local shop owner to give you that first job back and without any reservation. It requires smiles, and pats on the back, and random favor. Because it’s the individual that lets you know it’s worthwhile to be a part of the larger community. It takes friendship from your neighbor to help you leverage the aide of any government program. It’s important to have your mom in the audience when you get your diploma, courtesy of the GI Bill.
All of these things – charitable aide, government benefits and help from a neighbor – come from an inherent desire to give back. Most people want to help others, but as is the case with veterans the problem is often remote and complex. Most people would agree that they want to help veterans, especially those who have fought in our recent conflicts. But most people would also tell you that they don’t know a veteran, or even someone who has a recent veteran in their family. To them the only way they can help is to encourage veteran aide through legislation or pitching $19 every month on their credit card to a veteran charity.
But the limitation of language and the remoteness of the modern-day service member also create another challenge – the concept of another benefit program. The impersonal nature of the service of strangers can reduce any program into a discussion of handouts or worse, waste, fraud, and abuse.
Personal connection is key for the veterans, both in the utilization of every available benefit and in combating stereotypes.