Warriors Are More Than Warfighters
Warriors know best the total cost of war. They have measured it with their own lives, and their return to an unprepared medical system, a sluggish bureaucracy, and a divided civilian-military society can be just as damaging as war itself. As a US veteran, I experienced these challenges firsthand, and now my Ukrainian counterparts face similar problems. But it does not have to be this way for them. The US Department of State and the US veteran nonprofit sector are well positioned to inject their 20 years of experience with these issues into Ukraine. Solutions abound from an American social movement that evolved into a niche industry now poised to export its innovation to a worthy ally.
The current landscape of veteran recovery and reintegration in Ukraine is fraught with unnecessary fragmentation and competition, not unlike that in the United States a generation ago. The Ukrainian Veteran Foundation has noted this in its recent report, The Needs of Veterans 2023, which includes findings from a survey of veterans. Respondents said that the “bureaucratic” and “non-unified procedure” for obtaining benefits, mental health services, and other critical resources. such as education and employment opportunities, contributes to a perceived lack of support and respect.
This perception, real or imagined, perpetuates a sense of hopelessness and disconnectedness that can be lethal for veterans. The United States lost 7,057 servicemembers in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2023. During that same time 30,177 veterans of those conflicts died by suicide. While every suicide cannot be attributed to a perceived lack of support, the juxtaposition is so striking that preventing veteran suicide remains a US government priority. Two recent initiatives by the Department of Veterans Affairs and USAA costing more than $60 million reflect this.
A solution for curing the siloed structure of veteran services is creating unity-of-effort among the primary stakeholders charged with the well-being of veterans and their families, and those working for a stable and healthy civil society. The latter includes government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector. Combined Arms, an organization that brings together veteran-focused nonprofits, agencies, and communities to aid veterans, showed the success of unity-of-effort at a time when the Department of Defense was fighting two wars and the Department of Veteran Affairs struggled to respond to an avalanche of disability claims, multiple scandals, and epidemics of traumatic brain injury and suicide. Combined Arms’ technology and programs, developed by veterans for veterans in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, expanded the capacity and networks of grassroots organizations and service providers to deliver a digital platform, with an option for human interaction, that increased the transparency and reliability of providing veteran services. Over the past two years, the organization connected in Texas alone, a state similar in size to Ukraine with a comparable number of veterans (approximately 1.5 million), more than 40,000 veterans to 60,000 resources provided by 250 member organizations that offered a combined inventory of 1,200 services. The social return on investment in 2022 from Combined Arms’ activities, including homeless prevention, legal assistance, and the direct benefits from new employment, is valued as high as $530 million. This success did not come overnight, but the system that Combined Arms created has become so effective that several other US states are implementing it. In some cases, the system is also reducing government waste and human suffering with powerful data insights driven by the platform. All this sets an example for assisting Ukrainian veterans.
Other locations could enjoy the same economic and social benefits that Texas does. Disregarding veterans’ needs in recovery plans of post-conflict societies, however, can carry severe consequences. The 2003 disbandment of the Iraqi military after the US invasion serves as, perhaps, the most extreme example. Many out-of-work soldiers joined the Sunni insurgency and, later, the Islamic State group. The potential that political factions in Ukraine could exploit veterans to oppose the Kyiv government should be sufficient reason alone to meticulously include veterans and their families in recovery planning.
Those who served in Iraq early in the war may remember their Ukrainian comrades. I and others fortunate to know them and those fighting now commend them for their courage and sacrifice. We who have measured the total cost of war with our lives stand united with Ukraine, and we are ready to assist our brothers- and sisters-in-arms. Warriors are more than warfighters, and the US Department of State, as it provides assistance, should rely more on those of us who best understand the struggles of Ukraine’s veterans and their families.
Dylan Tête is a 2022 Marshall Memorial Fellow and a US Army veteran who coordinated recovery projects in Mosul during the Iraq War, supervised the construction of FEMA housing facilities in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and created Bastion, a community for veterans living with traumatic brain injuries and their families.