This is something I hear often from veterans that I work with: “I don’t get help, because others are worse off than me.” “What do I have to complain about? I made it back, didn’t I?” “I don’t want to take up your time, there are other veterans who need to talk to you more than me.” While the “I’m not worthy” thing may work in Wayne’s World, it does nothing but cause a veteran to continue to suffer needlessly. As my colleague and guest on the Head Space and Timing podcast, Erin Fowler, says, “I’m the one who gets to decide when someone’s wasting my time, and you’re not it!”
It’s almost as if veterans think that any resource that is available to them…mental health counseling, disability benefits, education benefits, housing or employment support…is limited in both scope and scale. It’s like we think that these resources are like the food in our fridge: there’s a limited amount, and when it’s gone, then it’s gone. “Better that I should go hungry,” the sacrificial veteran says, “Than one of my brothers or sisters miss out on what they need.”
Instead, these resources are literally like an All-You-Can-Eat Buffet. Not one of the sketchy ones that always seem to crop up outside the back gate of post, but one of the really good ones. The kind of buffet that has endless supplies of prime rib and lobster and a taco bar. You can think that you’re saving a place for someone else, or that you don’t deserve to eat at the buffet, or any number of things, but that doesn’t make them true. The only person you are really hurting is yourself.
These Resources are Your Right, Earned by Your Service
By your service in the military, you have lifetime access to the full range and amount of benefits you’ve earned. Sure, different levels and types of service either allow access or restrict access to different portions of the buffet, but many veterans disqualify themselves from these benefits before even exploring whether they’re an option or not. “I don’t deserve disability benefits, look at me…I have all my fingers and toes.” While, in the meantime, it takes you fifteen minutes to get out of bed in the morning because the shooting pain in your back or knees. Or your emotions are so varied that you don’t know how you’ll be feeling from one moment to the next. This is not “perpetuating the stereotype of the broken warrior,” this is acknowledging that miltiary service is a significantly dangerous and demanding occupation, both physcially and psychologically. Your right to your benefits is like your right to vote: if you don’t use it, the right doesn’t go to someone else. It belongs to you, and you alone.
These Resources are Not Limited
Sure, there are rules and policies that restrict which benefits you can use, but usually by the time that you use them, they’re as much as you need. Sure, I used my GI Bill to get a second Master’s Degree; it would be hard for me to make an argument that I need to use Vocational Rehabilitation money to get a third one. But that’s not me taking away from someone else…that would be me trying to take more than I need (see below). But just like the great buffet, the resources don’t run out…they’re there. When you walk up and fill your plate, there is some there, and when you go back, there is still some there. Even if you are standing in front of the buffet saying, “No, that’s okay, I’ll let you go first,” and your battle buddy goes up to fill their plate, the resources are still there. There are benefits stacked on top of benefits that you earned by the right of your service. If you don’t use them, it’s not like they’re going to someone else…they’re endless, with some exceptions, but those are extremely rare.
Sometimes, Others Take More Than They Need
This happens. You know it does. There is always that one person at the buffet, with a plate in each hand and a third balancing on their forearm. They are literally taking everything that they can eat, and more, with apparent lack of regard for anyone else trying to get the same stuff. And do you know what? Even after they walk away from the buffet, satisfied down to the rolls stuffed in their pocket, there are still benefits available for you. Are there attempts to defraud the system? Yes, absolutely, and they’re horrible. There are certainly some who have not earned benefits that are receiving them. But do you know what else? That’s the government’s problem, not yours.
I was First Sergeant of a company in 2010-2011 where we had the responsibility to help wounded soldiers transition out of the military. A senior leader in my chain of command, during a private conversation, said, “Look at all of these Soldiers. It’s going to be our tax dollars that are supporting them into the future.” My response to them: if every one of these Soldiers immediately recovered and returned to duty, would we stop paying taxes? No! I will acknowledge that maybe 20% of the soldiers in my company had simply got tired of the Army and were using this as an easy way out, but 80% of them were those who had served honorably and had legitimate wounds. The problem was, and still is, that the 80% is treated like the 20%; for me and my commander, we had to treat the 20% as if they were the 80% so that the majority of them got what they deserved.
Not Accessing Resources Hurts You, and No One Else Benefits
So there you are, standing in the middle of the buffet. Starving at the feast. People are handing you food, begging you to take it, practically filling your pockets with it, and you say, “Nope. No thank you. That should go to someone who needs it more than me.” Guess what? It won’t. It will just sit there, waiting for you to access it. Others…like veterans with undeserved bad paper…would be thankful for even a tenth of the resources that are available. By rejecting the resources that are yours by right, you’re perpetuating the struggles that you might have. Is the suck so good that you want to embrace it all the time, even when you don’t have to?
Don’t wait. Don’t think that others deserve it more than you. Sure they deserve it…and so do you. Reach out and take advantage of the things you’ve earned, and live the post-military life of peace that you’ve always wanted.
The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!