5. The Matter of Utility

While motives to join the US military occupy nearly infinite points along a spectrum, we can still reasonably conclude that - at least for the past 50 years - the ranks are populated by those who personally elected to be there. Yet little easy-to-find research elucidates the decision point itself: join versus not join. We might reasonably assume that decisions to not join include an objection to the idea of killing, fear of physical or emotional inadequacy, and a worsening trend nationwide where youth are unable to meet height, weight or criminal background standards. There is also a cross section of young Americans who have no interest whatsoever in service. It seems pointless, pays terribly, and conflicts with whatever plans they have for their own lives. Not joining doesn’t produce feelings of guilt in these instances; it never blips on the radar of the young man who already has a good plan in front of him, who is expected to go to college and thereafter embed in the family business. The kid who either knows exactly what he wants out of life or perhaps what others want out of him. Finally, joining the military is also distinctly unattractive for the guy who lacks an ability to commit to anything more long term than a video game. Still, all of this only tells us “who doesn’t,” and explains blessed little about “who does.”

For all the demographic patterns already detailed about who volunteers to serve, some additional facts bear discussion. Foremost among these is that military service obviously means doing something for somebody else. In a country and culture that is rabidly individualized and self-focused (arguably to a fault), military service demands the voluntary placement of oneself beneath an expansive hierarchy where decisions (to include life and death ones) are made by some higher authority and often divorced from their rationale. Nonmilitary people rudely suggest that this only appeals to young men and women who have few other choices in life. While that may be the case for some, it remains a gross oversimplification.

Rather than over focusing on the action of “doing something for somebody else,” it may be more appropriate to rephrase it as an intent to “be of some value to somebody/something else.” In this regard, veterans, as a group of volunteer servicemembers, may place a higher emphasis on utility to others than their civilian counterparts. The specifics of this are no doubt varied: utility to the mission, to God, to the country, to the unit, an instrument of peace, freedom, doing something purposeful with your life, and so forth. Regardless of one’s specific motive, it possesses elements of a person finding individual identity (at least in part) from a number of external factors.

This helpfully explains how acts of battlefield heroism may be considered baseline expectations for those in combat arms (both of themselves and their leaders), and the overt disgust seen among servicemembers when somebody doesn’t perform to that standard. Utility to others and the mission takes precedence over everything, to include self-preservation. This is the action that accompanies the phrase “death before dishonor” wherein dishonor is the abandonment of one’s utility and external obligations. Many veterans recount being more afraid of screwing up or failing a comrade than dying.

In truth, this is probably critical to the success of an all-volunteer military. Personalizing one’s military performance enhances buy-in by pinning self-identity on outward performance and elevating personal failure to an assault on self-worth. These are the kids who jump on grenades without hesitation; doing otherwise violates personal principle and potentially shatters self-perception. Without a doubt, those who view military service like this, particularly alongside training that instills a sense of infinite accountability while maintaining a youthful sense of invincibility, will sink their hearts and souls into the fullest performance; to do otherwise threatens how they have positioned themselves in the universe itself. No doubt this is the same trait that, when applied after service, explains the typically higher performance of veterans in the workforce, the dedication to the job (i.e. a mission focus), and leads to the superior performance of many veterans over their civilian counterparts. But if the heart and soul are sunk into the mission, might also the heart and soul be vulnerable to injury of some sort when it all goes sideways? Since the battlefield is wrought with uncontrollable circumstances, the risks for feeling personally responsible (and a lesser human being) as a result of external factors is high.

In terms of differences from John Q Public, this may be it: the matter of utility. Intimately and personally connected to it are issues such as self-identity, individualism, worldview, faith, purpose, how one defines success and how one contends with failure. It is not an independent ideal; it is a nerve center rather than a nervous system. People fit along a spectrum. At one end a veteran considers suicide as a result of a perceived loss of utility and, at the other end, a veteran digs deeper and finds a creative solution, silvery lining, or just weathers the storm without complaint. At the core of the concept of utility, when fully dissected, is the matter of how a person works through failure. The rub, of course, is that combat arms has often trained servicemembers to believe that failure is not an option at all.

Countless documentaries, books and movies (the lattermost in the shabbiest way possible) have introduced the idea of survivor’s guilt amongst servicemembers and veterans (which certainly feeds into the romanticized broken, beautiful warrior with 0% body fat). It seems an understandable perversion of the “infinite sense of accountability” coupled with the determination of self-worth by one’s value to others or the mission. In this way, countless veterans have needlessly shouldered responsibility and remorse for things entirely outside of their control. Insofar as it is both an acceptable post-military identity and aligns with the military’s ultra accountability, it can be painfully difficult and unprofitable to shed. And, interestingly, it is much less “I wish so and so had survived” and far more “I wish I had died there too (or instead).” Stated like this, it is far less relational (healthy) than it is self-focused. Death before dishonor, fatality before failure. How do you disable the once-highly effective trait of intense self-criticism?

It is also well-known that suicide rates among veterans exceed that of comparable age groups within the civilian populations. A raft of data dispels the oft-believed myth that combat experiences increase one’s likelihood of dying by suicide. Combat, in fact, has some insulating qualities. You’d be surprised how close you suddenly feel to the men around you who fought the same fight and survived. Likewise, deployments themselves are not a key cause of suicides. Active duty suicides, for example, are disproportionately among those who have never deployed at all. Further, nor is it just the young combat vets who are at higher risk; it is single males ages 29 and younger, and white males around 55 or older. For the latter, you’d be hard pressed to blame four years in the Navy during the Carter administration for a death by suicide 30 years later. One commonality in suicides across all of these subpopulations is that they occur at a point of immense strain or loss in key relationships. This alone accounts for more than half of veteran suicides. As a possible explanation, the matter of utility fits quite nicely.

The young veteran is fresh out of the military and can’t find his feet. The means by which he used to self-identify are gone. The uniform, the gun, the “thank yous for your service,” the free stuff, the backing of God, the government and the country music industry. You’re not Sergeant Tough Guy anymore; you’re Mr. Who Gives a Shit. And since the things that feed your soul are no longer there to nourish you, now what? The first year or two after discharge from the military (even if completely voluntary and well-prepared), is often a painful period of loss, intense self-reflection, and an urgent search for redefinition around either non-military or post-military utility. It comes as little surprise that so many veterans find their way into law enforcement, which bears considerable cultural similarities. Or fire services. Or working for an organization, agency or nonprofit that serves the military or veterans. All of these enable at least moderate avoidance of the underlying question (“who am I now and in what or whom I find my worth?”). For some, the soothing balm can become the crutch and later the poison, particularly when the mission focus continues at the expense of other profoundly important obligations: family, other relationships and life.

So what about the older guys? If they’ve navigated the transition successfully and found a way to adjust or even thrive in a post-military existence, how can utility still present as a stumbling block? Simply put, the concept of utility may have been over applied to family or career. And, as things go amiss in both, so goes one’s sense of peace. This bears similarities to how males view themselves as a baseline, but may be all the more important with veterans.

The wife stuck with you until the kids were out of the house. Now, she’s done with your dumb ass and she’s filed for a divorce. You have failed as a husband or even as a father. You’re approaching the mid 50s or older and you thought you’d be further along with savings, retirement investments and stability. Looks like you’ll be working well into your 80s passing out stickers to stupid kids at Walmart. You’ve failed as a provider. You’re getting older and can no longer keep up maintenance on your home. Or worse, you need help with some of the activities of daily living. You’ve failed as a caretaker and useful person, and - adding insult to injury - somebody else now has to take care of you. You’re a failure and a burden both. Every one of these circumstances are painfully hard, but harder still if you pin your value as a human being on things no longer within your immediate control. Death may look favorable to defeat.

Indisputably, this is not a malady that afflicts all veterans. If it were, suicide rates would be far higher than they already are. We can cautiously conclude, however, that within the veteran population there exists a subset who are particularly vulnerable to loss of utility - at any age - and negotiating feelings of catastrophic failure can be a challenge. The watershed event may relate to relationships, but it began upstream with financial uncertainty, employment instability, years of incremental damage in or to relationships, and the prevailing behavior of self-assigning total responsibility in what are often very complicated circumstances well outside the control of one person.

In the view of some, navigating the real world, marriage and relationships is much harder than going to war. There’s no rulebook, fewer options for honor, and bad circumstances become, at some point, entirely inescapable. The sheepdog with a mission becomes the sheepdog without a mission, then eventually the sheepdog that will never be suited for his mission ever again. What do old dogs do when they’ve outlived their use? The things that made you feel more whole than ever before, now, in their departure, leave you more empty than your soul is able to withstand.

Copyright ©, Ben Shaw, 2023
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