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The Bush Institute Talks with General Pace and General Chiarelli about Post-9/11 Veterans

Article by George W. Bush Presidential Center October 6, 2014 //   13 minute read

Last week, President Bush hosted the 4th annual Bush Center Warrior Open, a competitive 36-hole golf tournament to honor post-9/11 U.S. service members for their service and sacrifice and to recognize military service organizations for their important work. Twenty-one warriors competed in this year’s tournament, and several shared their stories at a welcome dinner event on Wednesday evening.

General Peter Pace, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Peter Chiarelli, former Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, were two of the Warrior Open’s honored guests and spectators.

General Pace, the first Marine to serve as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired in 2007 after more than 40 years of active service.  He is a member of the Director of National Intelligence Senior Advisory Group and a Distinguished Visiting Research Scholar for Fordham University.  He and his wife are associated with a number of charities focused on supporting the troops and their families. General Chiarelli is a retired 4-star general with 40 years of service in the U.S. Army. He continues his commitment to finding better treatments and cures for brain injuries and brain disease as the CEO of One Mind, a nonprofit dedicated to finding treatments for all brain diseases and injuries.

The Generals took some time to speak with the Bush Institute on Thursday about the challenges our post-9/11 vets are facing, the opportunities ahead, and the importance of supporting our troops as they transition to civilian life.

What are some of the biggest challenges our post-9/11 veterans are facing today?

General Chiarelli: As I look at this whole thing, I think post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury

are the ones that seem to be lasting. I mean we’ve done such amazing work with prosthetics, yet for a man or a woman to lose a leg, or two legs, or even two legs and an arm in an explosion, as some of these warriors last night talked about, you’re beat up pretty bad and your brain takes a pretty good wallop, and those wounds aren’t always visible.

And I thought it was telling as the warriors got up and talked, I don’t remember a single one not talking about something to do with traumatic brain injury, or post-traumatic stress, or one of the other various mental issues that are associated, everything from depression to general anxiety disorders. I think those are the toughest because we are just so far behind in understanding the biology of exactly what happens when those things take place.

General Pace: I actually agree with that.  And from a totally different perspective, I think another major problem we have is finding a job, because most Americans have not served in the Armed Forces and they don’t understand the national resource that veterans are. They don’t understand their self-sacrifice and their ability to learn, and their ability to be a team player, and their adaptability, and all those things that we know intuitively are what veterans are all about.

There are about three million jobs out there that need folks in them that are vacant right now, and there are many veterans looking for work. And you would think that it would be a pretty good fit, but getting the two together is difficult sometimes. This is not about veterans as victims. It’s about veterans as national resources, and employing them in a way that’s great for them and great for the company that hires them.

General Chiarelli: If I could just add to that, there’s kind of a dual-edged sword here. Although we talk about traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, I think one of the reasons why we have problems with veterans’ joblessness is the fact that there’s a general feeling out there that anybody who has deployed has traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, and that’s just not the case.

The large majority of service men and women who’ve deployed come home perfectly fine. And to use a paintbrush, to automatically think that they are somehow damaged goods, in itself is not a good thing. I think it’s right that we’ve focused on it, but at the same time I think we have to constantly remind people that there are many, many more who have returned just fine. And to think that anyone who has deployed comes away with those kinds of invisible wounds is just not correct.

But how do we help reduce the stigmas that are associated with the invisible wounds of war?

General Pace: I think it’s a matter of education and exposure to veterans. I think what President Bush is doing here is a large step in that direction. One of the things we’re trying to do with the veteran’s initiative here is to share best practices amongst those who have gotten the concept and make sure that others do. It’s an education process, and it’s important for folks like us, whenever we get a chance to publicly speak about it, to speak about it.

Why do you think nonprofit and military service organizations are so important for transitioning warriors?

General Chiarelli: They’re absolutely critical right now because many of the things that they’re providing for warriors, in the areas of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, are not evidence-based and that might not mean anything to anyone, but it’s really important because insurances don’t cover that. So right now they’re filling a gap.

I’ll give you an example with service dogs. There’s no evidence-based research that’s been done on service dogs, but we know that service dogs play an important role in providing help to many with severe post-traumatic stress. My big concern is what happens six years from now when those service dogs pass because that’s what happens to dogs - they die at about 12 years. Will there be the same support out there to ensure that they are in fact replaced?

I think now is the time for us to be doing the kind of work we need to do to show their value so that when that occurs, if there is this much philanthropic support out there as there has been to train these dogs at $20,000 to $40,000 a piece, that either DOD VA or insurance companies are willing to see the value of that and provide them in the future.

General Pace: In addition to that, you’ve got not only the aspect of the folks who need help today but you also have, for those who are thinking about joining the military, part of the process you go through is – if I get injured will I be taken care of? Everyone knows that the military medical system is unbelievable. So as they look at volunteering, part of that process is if something happens, will they be taken care of? The answer is yes. And then when they transition out, will there be some kind of a safety net out there as well? And yes, there is. The safety net doesn’t have to be because you’re injured. The safety net could very well be that folks who are out there on this end who value what you’ve learned in the military are ready to employ you.

So in a very real way, the incredible nonprofits that are out there - and there are 46,000 nonprofits in this country focused on troops and their families - not only are they helping with the veterans themselves, but they’re also helping with recruiting on the front end.

The focus is often on the challenges our returning service members face as they transition to civilian life. What are some of the strengths they possess – naturally and through their military training – that they bring to the civilian workforce?

General Pace: It’s loyalty and fidelity and focus and dedication and teamwork and self-sacrifice. All those things that the instant you go to boot camp you learn that there’s no way you can do this on your own. There’s no way you can succeed. You must be part of a team, and that your value is not as an individual but as a working member of that team. And all that transitions then when you go back out to civilian life into the corporate world and look for employment because those are traits that are honed inside the military.

General Chiarelli: If you go out on that golf course today, you see what I call a pure demonstration of resiliency. People who have gone through and suffered really difficult physical injuries with prosthetics and legs that aren’t 100 percent, and they’ve taken a game where you swing this club at a little white ball, and everything has to happen according to the laws of physics in order to move it down the golf course.

And we’re sitting here watching the leaderboard right now and seeing two people tied at two over par, there’s few members of a golf club who could go out, if any, who could go out and compete with some of these great warriors that we have out here. And I think it’s just an amazing display of resiliency and determination. To get really dealt a very difficult blow in life but pick yourself up literally and get back in the game. I would imagine that would be attractive to any employer, and I think General Pace would agree with me, there’s thousands more out there that are just like this who are doing that every day.

How we can better bridge the civil-military divide?

General Pace: I think not calling it a divide is a good place to start. I think how you phrase a problem really sets up where you’re going.  I really think it’s a lack of information, and we need to share the realities as opposed to bridging the gap. The reason that you have the need to do that is because one percent of the nation is defending the other 99 percent, and therefore the 99 percent don’t know what they don’t know. It’s not a divide from the standpoint that we’re on one side and they’re on the other. It’s an education experience gap that needs to be filled. And I think things like this event – every chance you get to articulate what’s really happening and why it’s happening is extremely beneficial.

General Chiarelli: That says it all. We’ve made a decision as a nation to have an all-volunteer force so for the foreseeable future it’s going to be less than one percentage of our population defending it. So we just have to do everything we possibly can to again, go back to this whole thing of education and talking about it.

General Pace: I really do believe the American people today are much different, much better educated about the war effort and what their military is doing. When I came back from Vietnam, people who supported the idea of being in Vietnam were supportive of me personally. And those who were not supportive [of the effort], were not supportive of me personally.

Today, when you walk through an airport, people will come up to you and say, “thank you for your service.” If they don’t agree with the war, they might even say, “I don’t agree with what we’re doing as a country, but I appreciate your willingness to serve the country.” So if anything, the civilian population and the military population are closer emotionally than they’ve ever been. And that’s, I think, reflected in 46,000 organizations out there. That’s a lot of folks who are not military folks who care. So it really is a population that loves and supports their military needing to understand what their military brings when they come out.