There's a new kind of military veteran who will be a vital part of the American landscape for decades to come.
These are not the stalwarts who fought in the wars of decades ago, though we are unendingly grateful for their contributions.
The "new" veterans are those coming home since 9/11, some 76,000 of them in Illinois alone. That number will grow quickly as the U.S. winds down several operations abroad. They are generally younger and face a relentless job market. Many will seek a college education. More than a third have at least one child, and thousands are single parents. Some have suffered wounds, both physical and mental. Their needs are varied and urgent.
But these veterans also have learned skills they may be able to use once they are home. They don't want pity but understanding. They desire not to be treated as victims but rather as people who can and want to contribute.
We owe them that.
Erica Borggren, director of the Illinois Department of Veteran Affairs and an Army veteran herself, says the public's engagement in the lives of returning veterans will be crucial to their overall success as they rejoin civilian life.
She spoke last week at a seminar called "Covering the New Veterans," sponsored by the Illinois Press Association and The Poynter Institute and hosted by the Daily Herald. The goal was to train journalists how to better tell the stories of American servicemen and women returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
But getting to the stories isn't easy, and Borggren's personal experience highlights one reason. Too often, she said, telling someone that she's a veteran becomes a conversation stopper. People just don't know what to say to that, and they don't want to offend.
Trying to change the subject is understandable, but avoidance and silence from friends and acquaintances only exacerbates feelings of isolation and detachment from society. Veterans continue to have a higher rate of suicides than the general population.
Still, veterans may be reluctant to talk about their experiences. When you learn someone has just returned from the military, Borggren said, asking "What was that like?" is a good place to start. Then the veteran can decide how far to take the conversation.
By hearing what they have to say, we as communities can understand how best to meet the needs of this growing and increasingly diverse population. In the past decade the Daily Herald has published dozens of stories told by the new veterans returning to their suburban hometowns. There are many, many more stories to be written, and our commitment to doing so continues.
Memorial Day is two weeks away, a time to remember troops who died in service to their country. But it also is a chance to show our appreciation for those who made it back. Our heroes need more than care packages now. They need our understanding. Let's listen to them.