Military personnel who have been deployed in wars or peace missions are called ‘veterans’, a title that acquires significance after the period of service. From that point on, they are often treated as a collective. For example, they are entitled to special care, financial support and other forms of help.
But in addition to this official status, former military personnel are also confronted with social attitudes towards veterans and the missions in which they served. They often feel misunderstood, according to PhD research by anthropologist Yvon de Reuver, a researcher at the Netherlands Veterans Institute. For her PhD at Radboud University, she interviewed nearly fifty veterans: former soldiers who served in Lebanon (1979-1985), Srebrenica (1994-1995) and Uruzgan (2006-2010).
Lack of understanding
Earlier research revealed that eighty per cent of Dutch people say they appreciate veterans, but that only a third of veterans say they experience this appreciation. De Reuver investigated the causes of this inconsistency. Many interviewees remarked how little knowledge there is in society of what the armed forces do. “They are asked questions like: ‘How many people did you kill?’” says De Reuver. “While some people even compare military missions to backpacking in Asia.”
Many of the interviewed former soldiers are unhappy that the term veteran is associated with psychological suffering, the researcher continues. Yet they have that same association themselves. “I spoke to a very active Lebanon veteran, who even had created a mini Lebanon museum. But when I asked what being a veteran meant to him, he replied that he didn’t feel like a veteran because he didn’t have any psychological problems.”
The study revealed more such contradictions. For example, veterans talk to each other a lot about the lack of understanding in society, but they are not inclined to talk about their war experiences with non-veterans, which therefore contributes to their ignorance.
“It is kind of a vicious circle,” says De Reuver. “The feeling of being misunderstood reinforces the ‘us and them’ mentality among veterans. The interviewees also mentioned characteristics that they consider typical of veterans, such as being more focused on action and the collective, rather than on talking and the individual, like ordinary citizens.”