Coming home from war may be as hard as heading off to fight in it. As many as 20 out of every 100 Iraq Veterans, 12 out of every 100 Gulf War Veterans, and 30 out of every 100 Vietnam Veterans suffer from PTSD. We’re bringing our troops home, but we’re not very good at welcoming them home after they’ve made it here.

IVY member Dana Ayers is a current U.S. Navy Officer in the reserves. Dana sat down with IVY Magazine to talk about why it’s so challenging for vets to reintegrate and some fantastic organizations she’s worked with that are making the process more manageable.

Dana Ayers is also the author of a new book, Confessions of an Unlikely Runner: A Guide to Racing and Obstacle Courses for the Averagely Fit and Halfway Dedicated, which features Dana’s insights and heartwarming memories from a life of running.

Dana Ayers is an IVY Member. Connect and collaborate with her here

Dana Ayers

IVY: What are the biggest challenges to successfully reintegrating veterans into civilian communities?

First, let me say that my answers here are based on what I’ve learned through my volunteering and through hearing stories from other veterans –I’m not speaking on behalf of the military! But what I’ve seen as a challenge is that in the military, you are really in the trenches with people, and those circumstances forge extremely strong bonds. Those kinds of bonds can be harder to forge in civilian lives.

I’ve also noticed a lot of misunderstanding between the two communities. Veterans come back and often feel like people who have not been in their situations can’t really understand them, and that there’s not a lot of common ground. The things seen in combat are not easy to describe to people who don’t usually interact with that world. Military culture is very different than civilian culture—it can be hard to have common ground with someone who has never experienced it.   

On the other hand, sometimes civilians look at veterans and see a very small percentage of the population who have an often intimidating “hero” image. They can feel like there’s a line between those who have served and those who haven’t served. Often, the two groups are very separate.

IVY: How can civilians help the veteran community integrate back into civilian life?

I think getting to know each other is really where it starts, and that’s why I love organizations like Team Red White and Blue where veterans and civilians hang out and form friendships completely outside of their jobs.

Another way civilians can help veterans is in career transitions. Often veterans find it challenging to find civilian work simply because they don’t realize that their skills are applicable, or they aren’t calling them by the same words (or they are using too much jargon that civilian employers don’t understand). Having a support network to bounce ideas off and help translate experience is critical to help veterans transition into civilian roles and figure out how they fit in their new communities. 

IVY: How did you get involved in Team Red, White & Blue?

I saw a Facebook post about it and really appreciated the mission—the organization is trying to provide camaraderie and community to those who have served in the military and come home to find a lack of community. The idea is to have civilians and veterans meet each other and form bonds organically across the country. The group focuses on physical activities for camaraderie (running together and doing group workouts) rather than just having drinks somewhere at a static event.  There are also social activities and humanitarian efforts that members can participate in.

The military has an ingrained “leave no man behind” mentality. I think that’s an admirable quality and something veterans may miss when they leave service. Communities like Team RWB help that mentality live on outside of military service.

The feeling that you’re not alone is so important. At IVY, I see people constantly who have books and startups and business ideas that they post about, and everyone is excited for that person and supports them. That’s what these groups give you: a support network and camaraderie.

And because so much of Team RWB activities are physical, members also glean the mental and health benefits of exercise. I mention Team Red, White & Blue in my book Confessions of an Unlikely Runner because the group has gotten me to exercise more just so I can be around the other members. Again, it’s just having that safety net of other friendly people that can help with whatever you might be needing support for.

IVY: Why did you personally join the Navy?

I wanted to serve for many years. I have a lot of friends who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and I loved the traits I saw in them. They seemed extra disciplined and capable, and I looked up to everyone I met in those communities. I eventually learned about a program where I could use my civilian expertise in the Navy Reserve so I applied and was selected.

The military does a great job teaching people how to overcome obstacles: how to stay calm, how to make quick decisions, and how to follow through on tasks. I think those are qualities everyone could use in order to be successful at whatever they do. I started my career as a White House staffer and those qualities were definitely needed there!

I am not saying that you can’t learn discipline and leadership without serving. But I think one big difference is that the military has a war-fighting mission. So your job may take you into combat, which means that your decisions could mean life or death. I think I was drawn to the seriousness of that and to being part of something bigger than me.

IVY: What is the Yellow Ribbon Fund?

It’s another military service organization I’ve been involved with for many years. It’s a small, local non-profit in DC but they do a lot of big things across the country. The part that I like so much is they do social events at a military hospital here in D.C. The events are held in the building where many of the wounded and amputees are in long-term recovery. The events we host provide the patients and their families a way to take a breath and feel normal. Sometimes service members are living at the hospital for years with intense physical therapy. These events help with their recovery and give their caregivers a break. The organization also does other things to help wounded warriors integrate back into civilian life, like helping them move or find jobs. They also have an Ambassadors program where people across the country can volunteer to help transitioning veterans in their area.

There are many military service organizations doing great things across the country. I encourage anyone who is interested to do a quick search online to find what is available near them and get involved – or contact me and I’m happy to point you to several!

Learn more about Team Red, White & Blue.

Learn more about Yellow Ribbon Fund.

IVY is a social university, inspiring connection, collaboration, and growth. To learn more, visit IVY.com.