For the past 16 years, I have shared the privilege and burden of helping shape Manhattan and Kansas State University into what I would argue is the most military-inclusive community in the country.
The best evidence for me is when a newly arrived Fort Riley soldier or family member shares a story about being invited to a high quality entertainment event, experiencing an amazing educational or personal development opportunity, or just someone in our community having gone out of their way to make them feel welcome, and their surprise to experience it in Kansas (of all places!).
After a probing question, they usually reveal an impression that this has been happening here forever. I rarely ruin this perception by admitting that a relationship of this quality is a relatively new phenomena, and having personally observed it both in and out of military uniform, I am exceedingly proud of the progress we have made in this area.
I believe we have gone from military-friendly (waving over the fence) to military-inclusive (saying, “Come on over!”). It is based on this remarkable history that I ask for your assistance in responding to a new set of challenges and entering a new phase as a military-inclusive community.
National statistical data indicates that post 9-11 veterans and their families leaving military service to rejoin the public are facing the most difficult conditions of any generation of war veterans, including post-Vietnam, in our nation’s history.
Uncertainty and stress from unemployment, under-employment, a lack of readiness for college, spouse and child transitions, residual health issues, including the psychological long-term costs of war, and joining a civil community for the first time as adults are but a few of these simultaneous obstacles.
My observations from numerous relationships with local soldiers and veterans confirm the difficulty many of them are having as they attempt to shift their identity and self-image from soldier to civilian.
The good news is that current data and anecdotal evidence suggests that our community’s hard work at creating a military-inclusive environment has resulted in an unprecedented number of Ft. Riley soldiers choosing to stay in Manhattan as they transition to civilian life.
However, for our community to meet the resultant challenges will demand new and evidence-based approaches to support these human and institutional transitions. I and others theorize that effective transitions will require the military and its current members to re-frame their expectations of the transition process, to include preparing to pay the human and economic costs of entry/re-entry into the civilian workforce that our human capital research scholars have well documented.
This picture of “a way ahead” is becoming clearer to me, my colleagues, and our fellow practitioners as we unravel, dissect, discover and design a new, systematic approach to enable veterans to successfully transition to the next phase of their lives. A critical aspect of this approach will be a renewed dedication and sustained support from local citizens to retain these great Americans as permanent residents, neighbors and friends. I know from my past experience that we have the talent, committed leadership and an enduring community-building ethic to accomplish these goals, for this is truly a noble cause.
The writer is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army who lives in Manhattan.