April 9, 2020
Have you seen images like this on your social media feeds? Here’s how it works: Someone plops down a table, a couple of chairs, and a sign with some outlandish statement asking people for five minutes to prove them wrong or hear them out.
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted to run the same type of social experiment to see how my neighbors were coping with the “new normal.” Yes, that’s me above waiting for my first “customer.” I set up shop on my sidewalk and waited for someone who would talk to me (from a safe distance.) It didn’t take long to get a few takers, and the results were telling.
First, I spoke with a relatively new neighbor, “Sarah.” She and her husband moved in less than a year ago, and they have two young children. One of them has special needs. Before stay-at-home orders, she used to travel regularly for work. Her husband, conversely, runs his own company from home.
For them, the work-from-home and homeschooling changes have had their challenges. Thankfully, the weather is great this time of year so everyone gets “breaks” outside. The kids do some schoolwork, burn off some energy in the yard, and then get back to schoolwork. Meanwhile, mom and dad alternate work calls from the front or back porch. Sarah’s outlook seemed pretty positive. Overall, she gave her family a B+.
A short while later, I spoke with another mom, “Jen,” walking her dog. I’ve known her a bit longer than the first neighbor and was surprised to see her walking the dog and doing so alone. Usually, it’s one of the kids walking Sparky around the neighborhood with a few other neighborhood kids in tow. Not today. On this day, it was just Jen and it was immediately clear she was not doing well. With four children at home, her husband laid off and an uncertain future, Jen looked out of sorts. Her head was down, her face drawn, and her overall vibe was abnormally quiet.
She sat down, almost reluctantly, but it didn’t take long for her to practically break down in front of me. What I heard loud and clear wasn’t the kids or the temporary job loss that had her out of sorts. It was the uncertainty of the future. How long will stay-at-home orders last? When would her first friend or relative die from COVID-19? How would her family recover financially?
It was clear the “unknowables” were causing intense anxiety and anticipatory grief. She was consumed with “what ifs” every waking moment. She gave her family a B but gave herself a D. She was feeling unevenly burdened by the fears.
We’ve Been Through Worse
Later, I spoke with a neighbor I’ve known for at least five years, “Frank.” He’s a Vietnam vet in his early 70s. His health is pretty good despite Agent Orange exposure decades ago and some recent setbacks. He lives a fairly active lifestyle with skeet shooting and boating near the top of his list. His wife, too, is in good health and she enjoys walking with neighbors several times per week. At first, he thought my sign was a joke or that we were on Candid Camera. We’ve been close for the last five years so he cut to the chase quickly. Frank said:
“I’ve dealt with worse…a lot worse. We’ll get through this…no doubt.”
I was interrupting his afternoon nap schedule so he trotted off before I could ask him for a grade. If I could guess, he’d have said an A.
I spoke to nearly a dozen people that morning. A couple more veterans were in the mix. All of them had seen combat in one war or another. Some from the front lines, others from the cockpit of a helicopter. Some served three years, some served 25. Most were enlisted, one was a warrant officer and another was an officer in the Coast Guard with post-9/11 deployed experience. Some, like me, left the service just a few years ago. For others, it’s been more than forty years since serving overseas.
Regardless of the variances in their background, later that day I realized the commonality I heard from the veterans:
We are fine. We’ll be just fine. We’ve dealt with worse. We will adapt.
There are 20 million veterans in our country. These people have been trained to improvise, adapt and overcome. They’ve fought in adverse conditions, under-resourced and undertrained. They’ve been taught that failure is not an option.
Press on. Push harder. Move faster. Solve problems.
For some veterans, it’s been more than a minute since they’ve had to use their military training ethos to overcome a life challenge. For others, it’s fresh in their minds. Regardless, if we take time to listen to them, learn from them, and even model some of their behaviors, we, as a nation, can improvise, adapt, and overcome to build a post-COVID-19 America that thrives.
We can lean on our veterans right now, but we also need to support those who are struggling. Those that are homeless or have mental health challenges need our help more than ever. We continue to fight for them, and alongside them, because we believe in their value as individuals, and as vital members of our communities.
We need them to survive because look at what they do when they’re at their best.
Veterans have been taught to thrive in uncertainty. They’ve been taught to retool and repurpose quickly. They’ve been taught to never, ever give up. They don’t leave anyone behind.
Life, today, is not canceled.
Life, tomorrow, awaits.
We can still move forward. How we prepare for the next year depends on each of us and, I suggest, looks brighter if we take time to learn from U.S. military veterans who embody the very meaning of resilience.
20-year Air Force Veteran and Stop Soldier Suicide CEO