Emotional demobilization

5 min read

In central London, on the pavement at every street corner, every traffic light, every pedestrian crossing, are painted two words: LOOK RIGHT. They exist to protect us against the instincts most of us have spent a lifetime acquiring, instincts that kick in when we are inattentive, in a hurry, tired or under stress.

A veteran returning to civilian life is like a tourist suddenly arrived in bustling London: all the instincts honed and tested intensively for years, often under stress most of us never experience, work against his or her re-entry into civilian life. In every interpersonal encounter, every domestic interaction, the instincts essential to physical and emotional survival in the military are the reverse of those we expect here at home. Where we value trust, a soldier learns vigilance; where we celebrate choice, a soldier internalizes structure.

For the soldier, the military is home: the military houses, feeds, equips, orders, manages, and protects the soldier. It is the apex of a structure/protection pyramid that began with parents, followed by teachers, and finally superior officers. Then one day all that structure is gone.

The same soldiers who have been mobilized and then meticulously trained for a hostile environment are given next to no training for a friendly environment, no glide path for emotional demobilization.

In wars of prior eras, not only were soldiers given many months of demobilization (“returning to civvy street”), they were returning in triumph from conflicts that were definitely over and definitively won. They came back as conquering heroes. Today’s soldiers return from conflicts that are unbelievably messy, where on top of the external threats they operate under highly strict rules of engagement unknown to any previous American armies. They come back as heroes but not as conquerors.

Think of the disorientation that can ensue when everything you once took for granted – daily rhythms, home, job, purpose, friends, culture – is now, suddenly, not a single choice but hundreds if not thousands of choices, some of them to be made impromptu, when in every case you have to look not left but right.

What you want, most of all, is what all of us want and most of us take for granted: a place of security (inside which you are safe), privacy (inside which you are your own person), and affection (inside which you are loved). Most of us call that home and return to it every night. Some veterans have that waiting for them: family, loved ones, fellow veterans. Some do not. Of those who do not, a distressing percentage find the lack of a safe place waiting back home leads them to stumble in some way, and if they stumble, it is all too easy to fall into either or both of the veterans’ post-traumatic sinkholes: homelessness and incarceration.

First and foremost, returning veterans need a proper home. Yet a home is not the cornerstone of VA practice, nor is it a cornerstone of American affordable housing policy. Instead we have pockets of home-oriented assistance, such as the HUD-VA Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) program that staples a Housing Choice Voucher to a lucky veteran, but at the all-too-inadequate rate of roughly 10,000 vouchers a year, versus roughly 100,000 a year retiring from active military service. And those vouchers are generally portable, when what the veteran most wants is a secure and stable place.

Instead of treating returning veterans as just another population of housing demand, some entities – many of them non-profits – have been developing re-entry campus-style housing properties, including two particularly noteworthy models:

  • Soldier On, which started in Pittsfield, MA and now has six more properties in development through the VAi2 Innovation Initiative. The apartments are campus-style, some new-built and others adaptive reuse of old schools, and mix permanent and transitional housing. They often replicate with modern technology the old RBK (room, bathroom, kitchen) with a central meals facility that was a staple of the pre-WW2 boarding house.
  • Casa de Cabrillo in Long Beach, CA, which combines permanent and transitional housing, most of it RBK and some of it a roommate-style suite arrangement. Like Soldier On, it focuses on supportive services customized for returning veterans, which it delivers through a contractual partnership with the non-profit U.S.VETS.

Aside from the cost savings of purpose-built campus-style housing with small apartments, central kitchens and communal meals, both eliminate a sort of look-right stress and encourage mutual support among veterans, preserving the esprit de corps that comes for men based on shared experiences and without needing words.

These pilots are small-scale, and they’re hard to finance. The challenge of combining HUD and VA programs is exceeded only by the challenge of melding VA and HUD administrative cultures. Hence the role of entrepreneurial non-profits, like Soldier On and Cabrillo’s Century Housing, who are used to dealing with government as the counterparty and, likewise, used to being the interlocutor between their residents/customers and the government that says it is here to help them.

We may subconsciously devalue transitional housing and take it for granted, but there’s one model whose move-out is always treated as a celebration. Graduation from college or university isn’t framed as losing a dorm but as gaining skills to enable us to succeed in life. We value time and money spent on education and celebrate its completion. In the same way, a re-entry campus that graduates returning veterans into independent strong adults is an investment that not only pays our veterans back for their service, it pays us all forward for their future contributions to families, communities, and America.

David A. Smith is founder and CEO of the Affordable Housing Institute, a Boston-based global nonprofit consultancy that works around the world (60 countries so far) accelerating affordable housing impact via program design, entity development and financial product innovations. Write him at dsmith@affordablehousinginstitute.org.