It’s Time To Reject The Myth Of The ‘Broken’ Military Veteran

It’s Time To Reject The Myth Of The ‘Broken’ Military Veteran

Given the ways veterans are routinely portrayed in media coverage and popular culture, we need to correct the common view that military service is psychologically devastating.
Sean Parnell
By

I am a U.S. Army combat veteran. In 2006-2007, my infantry platoon in Afghanistan regularly exchanged fire with Taliban fighters. We had a high casualty rate: I saw my men wounded and killed in action, and I was medically discharged, diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

My combat service was difficult and challenging. But I’m here to tell you that I was not “broken” or “damaged” by that experience.

It may seem strange that I should feel compelled to declare that fact. But given the ways in which military veterans are routinely portrayed in media coverage and popular culture, we need to correct the common view that military service is psychologically devastating.

The broken veteran, tragically damaged by wartime stress, is not a new trope. The idea can be found in war literature and memoirs through the ages. But in its modern form, the stereotype really took off in the 1970s, in the painful aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Classic films like “Taxi Driver,” “The Deer Hunter,” and “Coming Home” portrayed veterans as tormented souls who were haunted by war. Gradually, the cliché took hold that the soldier was either an emotional basket case or a tripwire psychotic who might snap at any minute.

For decades, the post-Vietnam experience set the standard for media and popular culture representations of veterans. In that same time, the military branches were moving away from a conscription model toward an all-volunteer force, which meant fewer Americans would experience military service. In the post-9/11 era, it’s estimated that only 0.4 percent of Americans have served in the military.

These trends have had an effect that, in hindsight, seems inevitable: communication and understanding between civilians and U.S. military personnel and veterans has eroded. While U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan for 18 years, and in Iraq almost as long, most Americans have no direct frame of reference for understanding what those conflicts have entailed. Thus, they fall back on the stereotype of the broken veteran who deserves their pity—because that’s one story they know.

That breakdown in shared understanding has real effects. Many veterans admit they feel disconnected and estranged from American society upon returning home. They are not “damaged” by their service, but they do face unique challenges in reintegrating into a society that doesn’t grasp the cultural gap between the civilian and military worlds.

Meanwhile, civilians who haven’t served are uncertain of how to help, and may hesitate to reach out to veterans. That dynamic serves no one well.

But we can change that dynamic. It starts with changing the stories we tell about military service and combat, and rejecting the exhausted cliché of the broken veteran.

The good news is that we’ve seen a number of efforts to do just that in recent years. For example, best-selling books like “Unbroken” and popular films like “Lone Survivor” and “American Sniper” present narratives of military service that are gripping, vivid, and layered with complexity, with uniformed protagonists who demonstrate skill, commitment, and resilience in difficult circumstances.

I’ve tried to contribute to that new direction in my own storytelling. My 2012 bestselling war memoir, “Outlaw Platoon,” offered an unflinching glimpse of what life is like for soldiers on the ground, to show how the combat experience shapes them.

My new thriller, “All Out War,” shares many of the same underlying themes of service, sacrifice, and courage. My hero, ex-Special Forces operator Eric Steele, exemplifies many of the best aspects of the warrior ethos. He’s not an indestructible cartoon superhero, but he’s not broken, either. He’s simply someone who wants to be the best warrior—and man—that he can be.

It’s time for more mainstream narratives and stories like this, and I want to encourage other veterans to step up to talk frankly about how their service has shaped them for the better. Americans need to hear that side of the story.

For too long it’s been assumed that veterans are damaged or victimized. We need to let people know that people who have faced combat also experience true growth—not in spite of the challenges of their service, but because of those challenges.

The vast majority of veterans are stronger for what they have gone through. Our media and popular culture storytelling should reflect that. Let’s tell a new story about military veterans.

Sean Parnell (@SeanParnellUSA) is a retired U.S. Army infantry captain who served in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. He is author of the critically acclaimed, national bestseller "Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan" and the bestselling thriller “Man of War.”
Photo Steven L. Shepard, Presidio of Monterey Public Affairs / Flickr

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