We all know that family. The parents who are willing to air their dirty laundry in front of an entire little league baseball complex. The youngest child covered with attention who still wants more, the forgotten middle child, and the oldest there to remind them that no one has had it worse than him. Collectively they barely seem like a family at all, but attack just one and you’ll feel the wrath of the whole. Infamous psychologist John Bradshaw wrote The Eight Rules for Creating a Dysfunctional Family. Control behavior and relationships, be right about everything, blame yourself or someone else, deny feelings, don’t talk honestly, make believe there isn’t a problem, stay upset, and don’t trust anyone.
Welcome to the family.
One of the greatest epidemics currently plaguing the veteran community is Social Comparison. Based on titles and past experiences, individuals evaluate their peers and appraise themselves in comparison. An upward or downward appraisal promotes positive or negative feelings similarly to how we evaluate our self-image with elite athletes (Festinger, 1954) In 1975, William Cooper and John Ross introduced the “Me-First Rule”. The idea was that individuals categorize relationships in a proximal to distal function. The people who share elements most like the speaker will always be mentioned and given priority over those with less similarities. As one’s position or title increases, so does their perception of importance. Perhaps this explains why veterans downgrade fellow service members to elevate their own status. Fobbit, Grunt, POG, Leg, Desk-Jockey, con-artist, poser, wannabe.
With 1.7 million veterans serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, the most generous estimate claims that 5-7% experienced some form of combat. 2017 Census Bureau statistics state that 340,000, roughly 20%, returned with Post Traumatic Stress. Let’s be honest. To many service members, the numbers just don’t add up. This perceived gap has created intergroup conflict where titles seem necessary to sift out the impurities of a collective image. This has created an atmosphere where both direct and indirect combatants feel victimized by the other. Those who served without engaging in direct combat feel disempowered and seek inclusion and acknowledgment of their contribution. Others who engaged in direct combat feel tainted, repressed, and offended by any such effort. Without their shared experiences, inclusion appears to be unmerited.
The Social Comparison war has spilled over into the world of social media. Infighting has led to increasingly hateful and disparaging rhetoric. Playful banter is quickly bombed with hateful remarks and battle lines are instantly drawn. Pick a side or get out of the way. Just know that if you leave you’ll be ridiculed just the same. In a community where the largest complaint is having nowhere to turn, veterans repeatedly cannibalize each other to the point of encouraging suicide. Yes, it’s a disgrace, but why do we do it? Remember the Eight Rules. As veterans separate, 17% are eventually treated for depression and anxiety disorders (Park et al., 2017). Identity conflict and alienation from a sense of community leave former service members with limited outlets. In lieu of that stability we seek to control. Control relationships, be right about everything, deny we have strong convictions, blame, pretend, stay mad, and trust no one. In that context, it sounds like a miserable way to live and it is. Post Traumatic Growth is largely defined by the creation of meaning. Unfortunately, too many have begun to believe that meaning should come at the expense of others. How has it not occurred that such a mentality completely contradicts the oath and core values of all. Men who spent the best years of their lives serving and protecting have now embodied the same selfish and malicious natures they once opposed.
“Let each man search his own conscience and search his speeches. I frequently search mine. Of this I am quite sure, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.” – Winston Churchill