united states project

A different approach to Veterans Day coverage

"The narrative of crazy veterans is probably overdone"
November 11, 2014

MIAMI, FL — “A lot of [veterans] I know, especially the younger guys, are kind of tired of the woe is me narrative.”

This is one reason Howard Altman, military affairs reporter for The Tampa Tribune, told me that he opted for a notably different approach to front-page Veterans Day coverage today. Altman wrote about a retired Navy SEAL who served in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan and is doing just fine–someone, Altman wrote, that “does not fit the the oft-portrayed narrative of what happens when men and women exhange their uniforms for civilian attire.”

Every year when Veterans Day approaches, news organizations all over the country start planning their coverage, looking for ways to honor the men and women who have served or highlight the problems they’re having after their service. In Florida, most of the front-page stories today fell into two familiar categories: articles focused on the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder some veterans are battling; and stories about local World War II veterans. The national narrative seems to have split between the heroes of the Greatest Generation, and the struggles of this one.

It’s certainly important to document the experiences of World War II veterans, 600 of whom are dying every day. Altman did that in a column about a photo shoot for an exhibit in Largo, Florida. And the problems of PTSD, suicide in the military and the inadequate response of the Veterans Affairs hospitals should be in the news. Altman has written about all three.

“There are a lot of challenges. PTSD is real and the suicides are a huge problem,” Altman told me. “But I think the narrative of crazy veterans is probably overdone.” He covers the military full time for the Tribune, which serves an area where 300,000 veterans live. “For me, every day is Veterans Day, because of my beat,” he said. “Those who have PTSD and those who are treating it, that’s my everyday life.”

But those stories have tended to overshadow a larger reality, Altman noted–most of the men and women who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan are succeeding in civilian life. Altman and the veteran he focused on, retired Navy SEAL Cmdr. Steve Rutherford, understand why the news media and the American public are so concerned about the struggles of returning veterans. Wrote Altman:

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After all, the Veterans Administration says that 22 veterans a day take their own lives and that as many as 250,000 veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. About 50,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, according to the department of Housing and Urban Development.

Clearly, 13 years and counting of constant war have wreaked havoc, as have previous conflicts. The concern about veterans stems from increased public awareness of that, Rutherford says.

But most veterans, [Rutherford] says, are like him. Not in distress, despite the challenges….

“[I]n large part, the overwhelming majority of veterans are doing ok. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a tough transition for them.”

It would go a long way toward easing that transition for all veterans if the media occasionally stepped back to provide the kind of important context Altman has.

Altman put me in touch with a source of his, a retired Green Beret who lives in the Tampa area and works with the Green Beret Foundation. Altman said Retired Master Sgt. Scott Neil had been helpful over the four years he’s been covering the military, especially when it comes to the context he needs for stories.

Neil works on issues surrounding veterans’ transitions into civilian life, and worries that the disconnect between the one percent of Americans who serve and the rest of the country makes it all the more important that the media understand the broader story. “The news media and movies, they tend to amplify that edginess of veterans,” he said. “It’s as if any loud noise will pop us like a light bulb. My big conversation is the inherent quality of this generation.”

That’s a conversation more journalists should participate in.

Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.