Journalists and experts discussed how to better tell the stories of the new American veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq during a seminar Friday sponsored by the Illinois Press Association and The Poynter Institute. The event was held at the Daily Herald Office Center in Arlington Heights.
Though U.S. involvement in both overseas conflicts is winding down, the challenges and triumphs of the veterans will be part of the American experience for much of the rest of the 21st century, the various speakers agreed.
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"We're here to talk about a story that is ... sort of being covered," said Butch Ward, senior faculty member at Poynter. "There are lots of good stories to be told, many of them not so obvious."
These are the stories beyond the physical disabilities and struggles to collect benefits, Ward said. They're the stories of men and women finding their places in civilian society after sacrificing so many aspects of their lives for the good of strangers. While some aspects of their stories will bear similarities to those of earlier generations, many more will not. Today's veterans include an unprecedented percentage of women and minorities.
The Veterans Affairs Department is gradually shifting toward serving these new populations, which include larger numbers of young people than it's known in decades.
Retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Junior Ortiz spoke about the particular challenges young veterans face when trying to re-enter the civilian workforce. After four years of military training, they often feel they lack the education and sense of individuality that many find crucial in landing a skilled job, he said. They and the business world must work together to recognize the particular advantages they can bring to the workforce, he added.
"Our kids are not damaged goods," Ortiz said. "They're an asset, not victims."
Nevertheless, a rising number of severe cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues can make re-entering civilian life even more difficult, said Walidah Bennett, a mental health professional.
She knows the difficulty firsthand. Her Iraq veteran son committed suicide in January after a long struggle with PTSD. While not every veteran struggling with mental health issues does so as a direct result of military service, she said there was such a connection in her son's case.
These cases cause a crisis on three different levels, she added -- for the soldier, for his or her family, and for society as a whole.
With the numbers of troops already home and those still returning, the demand on government resources will be overwhelming, Bennett said. She advocates more public-private partnerships to meet the varied needs of veterans.