Reintroducing US veterans to the country they fought for

Starbucks boss Howard Schultz has taken up the cause of returning combatants

US soldiers at a base near Najaf, Iraq, in 2004. “The government does a very good job of sending people to war and a very poor job of bringing them home.”  Photograph: AP Photo/Saurabh Das

US soldiers at a base near Najaf, Iraq, in 2004. “The government does a very good job of sending people to war and a very poor job of bringing them home.” Photograph: AP Photo/Saurabh Das

 

When I close my eyes, I can easily flash back to a time when it was cool to call people in uniform “pigs” and “baby killers.” If you had any family members in the police or the military in the Vietnam era, you know how searing that was.

Now we give our veterans respect, early boarding at airports and standing ovations at ball games. Yet it’s becoming clear that this is not enough. With no draft and fewer than 1 per cent volunteering to serve, most Americans have no personal connection to anyone who went to Iraq or Afghanistan. There’s a schism between the warriors and the people they were fighting for.

Instead of tickertape parades, the veterans returned to find Americans in a crouch, wishing they could forget the military adventures of the past decade. Hollywood was turning out movies showcasing heroic veterans, but they were from the second World War. And scandals scarred the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and an ill-prepared Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The government does a very good job of sending people to war,” Howard Schultz, chief executive of Starbucks, told me in New York last month, “and a very poor job of bringing them home.”

Schultz was more conversant with espresso shots than rifle shots when he was invited to speak to West Point military academy cadets about leadership in 2011. His father had served in the US Army in the South Pacific during the second World War, but never spoke of it. As a teenager, Schultz sat in front of the TV with his mother when it was announced that young men with draft numbers from one to 125 were going to Vietnam.

“When I tell my story to my kids, they think I’m making it up. ‘What do you mean, there was a lottery?’” Schultz said. “And I remember it was literally a lottery where they picked out balls. And my number was 332, so I didn’t go. But I would have.”

Learning from cadets

“It is I who should be learning from you,” he told the cadets. “You are the true leaders.”

It is good to cast your company in a patriotic glow, of course. But Schultz is also a man of open sentimentality, obsession with transformation and ferocious enthusiasms, be it for coffee, mermaids, basketball, biking, Israel or China. His epiphany at West Point led to an odyssey with veterans, a mission to get Americans to have more “skin in the game”.

“Before going to West Point, I had never even spoken to anyone in uniform,” he writes in a new book he co-authored with Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a Washington Post war correspondent. “As I look back, I’m embarrassed.” He put former defence secretary Robert Gates on the Starbucks board, committed $30 million from his family foundation to projects such as research into post-traumatic stress disorder and brain trauma, and visited the Pentagon, the Walter Reed centre and military bases. He and Chandrasekaran produced For Love of Country: What our Veterans can Teach us about Citizenship, Heroism and Sacrifice, a slender volume with harrowing and heroic stories of war and coming home. Schultz’s proceeds will go to the Onward Veterans fund, which was set up by the Schultz Family Foundation.

The coffee czar joined a growing list of corporations getting good PR by pledging to hire one million veterans, even though there are only about 200,000 post-9/11 veterans out of work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Schultz has hired 1,000 veterans and spouses and committed himself to giving jobs to 9,000 more by 2019. He has organised a “Concert for Valor” on Veterans Day, featuring the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Eminem and Rihanna, to celebrate soldiers and urge the public to get involved with veterans’ groups vetted by Gates and Mike Mullen, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. The free concert, put on by Starbucks, HBO and JP Morgan Chase, will be shown live on HBO.

Schultz said that many vets he talked to had lost “a sense of core purpose”. He writes that tens of thousands of them have grave injuries that will require a huge financial commitment and that healthy vets eager to work “are too often viewed as damaged goods”. There is a PTSD bias among employers. Veterans Affairs estimates that 11 per cent to 20 percent of the more than 2.4 million post-9/11 veterans suffer from PTSD.

Soldiers’ veiws

Washington PostJames CathcartNew York Times

But Schultz said that in his private chats with vets, “I never had one conversation where anyone brought up the politics. What I did hear, countless times, is: ‘I want to go back.’”

Chandrasekaran said that we need to weave the vets, recovering from multiple tours and terrains strewn with mines, back into the American narrative: “In 1946, if your neighbour was watering the street at night because he was kind of crazy from shellshock, you knew that everyone coming back wasn’t crazy because your brother or son or husband had served and was successfully transitioning. We don’t have that common understanding any more. So if someone goes and shoots up Fort Hood, there are all those people who think all vets are a bunch of killers-to-be. And that’s not the case. So the aperture needs to widen.”

I note that this is bound to make viewers wonder if he’s partly motivated by a desire to run for president. “I have an interest in trying to make a difference,” Schultz said. “I don’t know where that’s going to lead.” He added that “the country is longing for leadership and for truth with a capital T . . . We’ve lost our collective and individual responsibility and, to a large degree, our conscience, and that has to be addressed. And that is linked to a dysfunctional government and a lack of authentic, truthful leadership. Am I depressing you?”

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