Six Common Problems Veterans Face and How to Address Them
Updated: May 11
Serving in the U.S. Armed Forces is an honorable path that should be celebrated and applauded. Yet the value of this service is not always reflected in veterans’ experiences upon leaving the military. They often face problems related to difficulties in transitioning from military life to civilian life, which can involve navigating complex bureaucracy to access benefits; the effects of traumatic or moral injuries; and systemic gaps in mental health services.
Veterans’ common stressors can impact family, social, and professional relationships, as they have a sense of social disconnectedness due to loss of military camaraderie.
To make matters worse, many civilians may not be aware of or fully understand these unique issues. In seeking to highlight the needs of our veterans and encourage greater support, here are some of the common problems veterans may be up against:
1. Difficulties Transitioning From Active Duty to Civilian Life
What difficulties do veterans face when transitioning from the military?
An estimated 250,000 men and women leave or retire from U.S. military service and return to civilian life each year. As of 2021, there were a reported 16.5 million former service members in the U.S. In transitioning to civilian life, navigating the VA healthcare system, finding affordable housing, and applying for jobs can be a difficult and drastic shift.
According to a 2019 report from the Pew Research Center on veteran experiences, 30% of veterans stated the military did not prepare them well for making the transition to civilian life, and 15% felt the military did not prepare them at all.
When on active duty, service members receive food and housing assistance along with comprehensive healthcare. The process of securing a job that allows them to provide for their families in the same way and assures the same kind of financial security in a new phase of life is not easy, especially for those with a service-connected disability.
Veterans can experience social and relational challenges with family and friends post-service as well. Shifting from service-related responsibilities to the demands of civilian life and new work environments is a distinct journey that others are not usually able to relate to.
The VA’s Transition Assistance Program, known as TAP, provides tools, information, and resources to service members and their loved ones to help prepare them for the transition to civilian life. Yet its broad approach to aiding veterans is not sufficient preparation in many cases.
Veteran feedback published in the Journal of Veterans Studies underscores this.
Its 2020 article exploring what a successful transition model could look like notes that more attention should be given to adjusting to “new work/educational/cultural settings, meeting family transition needs, financial management issues, procuring housing, dealing with trauma responses, or assuring that veterans truly obtain the benefits and support they need."
Simply put, veterans would benefit from clear, comprehensive roadmaps and support for this significant life change. The VA must enhance its initiatives and programs to effectively prepare veterans.
2. Experiencing PTS and Gaps in Mental Health Support
Do veterans experience post-traumatic stress at higher rates than non-veterans?
Service members can be exposed to combat and non-combat situations that can negatively impact their mental health. This, along with systemic gaps in mental health care, can cause veterans to experience post-traumatic stress (PTS) symptoms at higher rates than civilians.
PTS has come to be known as the “signature wound” of veterans of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) in particular. The VA reports that 15% of veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) – in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively – have experienced PTS symptoms in the past year, and 29% have at some point in life. Part of the reason is that the GWOT saw a rise in improvised explosive devices (IED) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) impacting service members. All of this can elevate the risk of PTS and other mental health challenges.
For instance, an estimated 22% of all OIF and OEF combat wounds were brain injuries, which have been associated with issues such as memory loss, anxiety, depression, and fatigue. The high rates of PTS among veterans have also been connected to concerning rates of veteran suicides — though it’s only one of many issues that can contribute to self-harm or suicidal ideation.
For instance, Brown University’s 2021 Costs of War Project found that a significant number of GWOT veterans who have died by suicide did not all serve in combat roles. This suggests that the circumstances leading to their death went beyond the common dangers associated with war and could have been attributed to factors like moral wounds, mental health stigmas, and issues in military culture.
Additionally, there are systemic healthcare gaps that can prevent veterans from getting the care and support they need for PTS and other mental health conditions. RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research data shows that less than half of veterans in need of mental health services receive treatment, and less than one-third of those who do are getting proper evidence-based care.
The Biden administration announced in January 2023 that veterans in suicidal crisis can now receive free emergency medical care at any VA or private care facility, even if they aren’t enrolled in the VA system.
This new policy is a step in the right direction. However, it will take greater coordinated efforts between Congress and the VA to address gaps in veteran mental health care and ensure veterans can receive quality care in a timely manner. Reducing appointment wait times, fixing disparities in rural communities, and expanding community care provisions should be at the forefront of that agenda.
3. Missing the Camaraderie, Community, and Purpose Found While Serving
Do veterans lose their sense of purpose once they leave the military?
Though veteran experiences are wide-ranging and not narrowly defined, transitioning from the military can be one of the most challenging life changes for an individual and family. Many service members have a sense of identity, purpose, and camaraderie wrapped up in being part of the military, and it’s easy for that to feel strained or lost once they leave.
The Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN) surveyed 8,638 military and veteran families for its 2021 report on their quality of life and support. The results show 54% of military and veteran families reported experiencing feelings of disconnection and loneliness; only 11.6% of veterans still felt they had a connection to military life.
The unique experiences associated with leaving the military can impact service members in several ways. On one hand, there are practical challenges like securing employment, housing, and healthcare benefits, along with social factors that can make this change jarring and complex for veterans. Then there are the socio-emotional shifts: Veterans may find themselves without a sense of purpose and feeling detached from their military community. This can exacerbate the practical difficulties of adjusting to life after service, making it harder to cope with the changes. The military also provides structure that’s not often found in work in other environments.
A 2018 VA-funded study on veteran social connectedness and its links to depression found that “among five forms of social connectedness, loneliness was tied to the highest levels of depression and suicide ideation, or thoughts of committing suicide. Loneliness was also associated with the lowest levels of patient efforts to manage their health and to seek help.”
In improving assistance for veterans transitioning to civilian life, adequate focus should be placed on the socio-emotional aspects of this major life change. The VA and veteran service organizations should look toward implementing effective ways to foster support systems for service members — such as community initiatives, mentoring, and connection groups — as they shift to this new chapter.
4. Navigating VA Bureaucracy for Access to Benefits
What challenges do veterans face in accessing their benefits?
Nearly half of all veterans are unaffiliated with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) or a veteran service organization. In transitioning to civilian life, veterans can experience significant challenges when navigating the complexities of VA benefits, particularly as it relates to the VA healthcare system.
Blue Star Families’ 2021 Military Lifestyle survey found respondents named access to military/VA health care systems as one of their top concerns.
One reason is that the VA’s Transition Assistance Program, or TAP, does not adequately prepare veterans for the complexities of securing benefits nor the current pitfalls of VA care, such as long wait times and disparities in rural areas.
In fact, an April 2022 audit from the VA department’s inspector general found data on VA healthcare facilities is being reported inconsistently and in a way that conceals true wait times. And a February 2023 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that veterans living in rural areas often face unique barriers to accessing mental health care largely due to “staff shortages in rural facilities and transportation issues.”
There have been a few promising legislative steps since the new Congress took office in January 2023. The VA expanded benefits eligibility to over 3.5 million veterans after the PACT Act was passed in August 2022. The VA also launched a mobile application called VA: Health and Benefits, meant to centralize veterans' health and benefits information. Still, there’s significant work to be done, and the VA must:
increase awareness and better explain VA benefits prior to service members’ exit from the military;
reduce wait times for appointments with VA providers and right-size VA inequities in underserved areas; and
ensure veterans can receive quality care elsewhere when the VA cannot provide it in time or within a reasonable distance.
Most of all, Congress needs to provide oversight to see that the VA adheres to the guidelines outlined in the Mission Act — aimed at strengthening comprehensive healthcare for veterans — and that funds are being allocated effectively.
5. Lack of Proper Transportation for Disabled Veterans
What transportation needs do veterans face, and how can we meet them?
Transportation helps connect veterans to employment, regular health care visits, support services, and other necessities that are vital to a good quality of life. Lack of access to proper transportation or the funds to secure it can be a significant hindrance to veterans accessing their basic needs.
About one-third of veterans travel more than 60 miles one way to receive medical services, 9% of veterans rely on transportation services, and another 9% rely on public transportation; approximately 4 in 10 veterans live in rural areas where affordable transportation options are often limited.
A considerable number of veterans need specialized transportation as well. There are an estimated 5.25 million veterans — over one-third of the veteran population — who identify as having a disability that requires transportation assistance.
Imagine being a service member shifting into civilian life, needing to run everyday errands like grocery shopping or mailing a package, yet finding it difficult to obtain a vehicle that supports your physical needs or one that is affordable. This can be discouraging and add to the stress of establishing a new life outside the military.
With this in mind, it’s critical that veteran benefits include comprehensive transportation assistance, especially for veterans with a service-connected disability.
In a promising step, the AUTO Act was also signed into law in early January 2023, allowing disabled veterans who need modified vehicles to receive a grant from the VA every 10 years rather than once in a lifetime.
Nevertheless, additional efforts are needed by Congress and the VA to ensure all veterans have access to proper transportation and are aware of the transportation benefits available to them. This should include periodic follow-up with recently transitioned veterans, awareness campaigns around benefits, and a review of funding allocation for veteran transportation assistance.
6. Being Confronted with Veteran Stereotypes in Entertainment and Civilian Life
What are the common stereotypes about veterans, and how can we address these?
There are several stereotypes and misconceptions that can negatively impact the daily lives of veterans. A 2021 study by the University of Cincinnati looked at common stigmas veterans face. Through in-depth interviews with veterans ages 20 to 60, it found that “depictions of veterans in news media and pop culture often carry negative associations such as poor mental health or violence.”
Respondents shared that “views about military personnel are skewed by war movies that depict returning veterans as psychologically damaged by their experience” and many believed these portrayals can lead to “inappropriate and off-base comments by civilian peers.”
Despite these stereotypes, by most standards, many veterans would be considered model citizens.
For starters, veterans have strong employment rates. As of March 2023, the seasonally-adjusted veteran unemployment rate was 2.4%, down from 2.5% the previous month. The comparable non-veteran unemployment rate was 3.5%.
Veterans are also more likely to be civically engaged than non-veterans, and on average, veterans contribute more volunteer time in their communities than non-veterans.
And while the majority of Americans look up to people who have served in the military, there are still negative misconceptions that have permeated society.
Adding to this, and unlike other high-stress occupations such as law enforcement, medicine, or emergency response roles, veterans who enter the workforce usually aren’t surrounded by people with similar experiences and perspectives. This contributes to gaps in understanding, and they can be met with unrealistic or unfair assumptions about their capabilities.
These portrayals and misconceptions can have serious implications on veterans’ mental health, careers, social lives, and overall well-being. Workplaces, entertainers, and everyday people should be mindful of the inaccurate stereotypes impacting veterans and do all that’s within our power to put an end to them.
While some challenges for veterans may be obvious and widely discussed, there are stressors that the average person is not unaware of. As individuals, we can show support to veterans by educating ourselves on their unique needs and challenging harmful stereotypes or stigmas. We can also volunteer with veteran nonprofits and point former service members to useful benefits, service organizations, social groups, and other resources.
Mission Roll Call is dedicated to advocating for action on each of these issues in 2023 and beyond. Through outreach, polling, storytelling, and media, we present the concerns of veterans across the country to leaders in Washington. Collectively, we can urge Congress and the VA to address these unique stressors veterans face by sending letters or emails to our congressional representatives.
It’s time for effective solutions to these solvable issues. We must ensure our courageous veterans have access to the benefits they’ve earned and the basic essentials for a good quality of life.