On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Veteran’s Day will be a bit different this year because of the pandemic, but the issues affecting veterans still remain.
The increase in suicides among veterans is certainly a concern, and the numbers are quite shocking — there were more than 6,000 suicides each year from 2008 to 2016. The added stressors of COVID-19 could lead to even higher numbers.
We’ll also discuss the changing demographics of the military as it becomes more diverse, both racially and with regards to gender. In 2004, 36% of the military were non-white. By 2017, this number was up to 43%. The number of women in the military has also increased. Women represented 16% of the overall active duty force in 2017. That’s up from 9% in 1980 and just 1% in 1970.
Join us and celebrate Veteran’s Day with U.S. Army Vet Victoria Chamberlin, who is now a reporter with WAMU.
Produced by Kurt Gardinier
- Victoria Chamberlin Reporter, WAMU; @VOBOE
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show' on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll look at D.C.'s Vision Zero plan to stop traffic deaths in the District by 2024. But first, today is the 73rd Veteran's Day holiday. I'll do the math for you. The first official day referred to as Veteran's Day occurred in 1947 during the Truman administration. Prior to that it was known as Armistice Day.
KOJO NNAMDIThe pandemic means the usual parades and ceremonies aren't possible, but we're getting used to that. We will honor our nation's veterans. It will just be a bit distanced with lots of mask wearing and lots of phone calls. So how are you honoring the veterans in your life today? Joining me to discuss this day is Victoria Chamberlin, a Reporter at WAMU, a former producer on this show and a seven year veteran with the United States Army. Victoria, welcome back to the program and happy Veteran's Day.
VICTORIA CHAMBERLINThank you, Kojo. Thanks for having me on the show.
NNAMDIYou ended your seven year career in the U.S. Army in January. So this is your first Veteran's Day as a veteran. Does today now have new meaning for you?
CHAMBERLINYes. It definitely has special meaning to me. When you're on active duty you tend to recognize Veteran's Day anyway, but it's certainly different when you're on the other side and you've had time to reflect on your service and what it meant. And I'm actually a fourth generation in my family to enlist. So it's given me a lot of time and space to think about their contributions as well. And during World War II, actually my paternal grandmother served in the Women's Army Corp at the same as her son was in the South Pacific with the Navy. So it's things like that that I'm reflecting on today.
NNAMDIA fascinating family history. But if you're having this time to reflect it means that we're probably not giving you enough to do at WAMU to occupy your time. By the way if you'd like to join this conversation you can call us at 800-433-8850. Victoria, why did you join the Army and what were your roles throughout your time there?
CHAMBERLINSo like I said, I have a family history of service members. But the military didn't really have a big influence on my life growing up. But once I got to college those years were really marked by the invasion of Iraq. And as the war went on I started reading about all of these incredible acts of heroism that were coming from my peers. The dreaded millennials that receive so much hate really inspired me to enlist and serve in any way that I could. So in our late 20s my husbands and I both decided to quit our jobs. We sold our house and we enlisted together into the Army as musicians, and we went to basic training at exactly the same time.
NNAMDIWow. What were your roles throughout your time in the Army?
CHAMBERLINSo I was a musician. My husband is still a current Army musician, and then I changed to be a public affairs officer about halfway through.
NNAMDIWell, the U.S. military at one time was made up of mostly white men, but that's been changing really for decades. Who is in the U.S. military today in 2020?
CHAMBERLINSo it's still a small share of the U.S. population and it's still pretty white and male. But that's like you said steadily changing. And it really varies a lot between the services. So one interesting thing that I found in a report by the Council in Foreign Relations that showed the Army, which has the largest service, the proportion of Black women serving is significantly higher than the number of Black women in the civilian labor force. And that same research showed that Black men and women are woefully underrepresented in the Marine Corps better represented in the Army. And the Coast Guard continues to have the highest population of white recruits of all the services. So it's interesting to see how much they vary. But over time it's getting more reflective of the American population.
NNAMDIWell, back in 1980, just one percent of the military were women. Today women represent 16 percent. What was your experience like as a women in a predominantly male dominated field? And what's your advice to women and girls, who dream one day of joining the military like you did?
CHAMBERLINSo as a musician I worked in units and around major commands that had a fair amount of women in them. So my experience is going to be different there than say a woman in the Marine Corps where there's a significantly fewer number of women there. I interviewed a few women Marine veterans for a podcast that I did a couple of years ago, who told me that they moved into units where the men had never served with the women before. And that's really common in the combat arms. And that's going to be a huge challenge for everyone.
CHAMBERLINBut ultimately I think it's the only way to bring the services back more in line with the actual American population. And it will only serve the civilian workforce better when those service members transition to civilian life get jobs and have had experience working with a variety of people. So I guess my advice to the next generation of girls and young women would be join, if that's what you want to and keep, you know, moving the service forward.
NNAMDIHow are female members of the military generally portrayed in the media and in advertising? And what effect does that have on how people perceive women service members?
CHAMBERLINI think part of the answer there is that they aren't portrayed much at all. At least not enough and that's changing, but more of the blockbuster war films and things like that we gravitate to across all eras even modern warfare feature men. Advertisements feature men. So most people get an image in their mind of what a veteran looks like and it's probably an older man from the greatest generation or like a special operator with a beard or something like that, because we've been fed these images consistently.
CHAMBERLINAnd that's getting better, but we have a lot more work to do in terms of contextualizing, who service members and veterans ultimately are and what they look like. There's a lot of misconceptions about where service members come from and that they're mostly out of middleclass homes. And now actually the active duty force, the vast majority of ages they are between 25 and 44. So that's going to change what veterans look like moving forward.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Victoria Chamberlin. She's a seven year veteran with the U.S. Army and a former producer on this very show. She's a WAMU Reporter. Victoria, as I mentioned earlier, this is your first Veteran's Day as a veteran. What do you have planned for the rest of the day?
CHAMBERLINWell, I'm having a baby a week from today maybe. This is my first baby and I'm told that they, you know, call the shots. So we'll see. So mostly just getting my house and mind ready for that transition.
NNAMDIWell, we're all looking forward to this baby as you know.
NNAMDIWhat have you done in the past on Veteran's Day?
CHAMBERLINSo being part of an Army band and also as a public affairs officer I typically would work at a Veteran's Day ceremony actually instead of having the day off. That was a big part of our job. So in the past years I've worked in the Arlington National Cemeteries on National Observance. I've worked Veteran's Day ceremonies oversees. So it just depends on where I was and what was happening.
NNAMDIThe Veteran's Day ceremony that you mentioned at the Arlington National Cemetery is probably just wrapping up. What's a typical ceremony like there and how will today's be different?
CHAMBERLINSo every year the Military District of Washington, which is like the major command here in D.C. puts on what's called the presidential Armed Forces Full Honor wreath-laying. So it's a lot of words. Basically a senior government official places a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It doesn't necessary have to be the president, but presidents have in the past. And then followed by an observance program like a concert at the Amphitheater in Arlington with music from one of the D.C. military bands.
CHAMBERLINThis year because of the pandemic those areas and the ceremony itself were closed to the public and only select personnel were there in person, but it was livestreamed so people could watch. And you can catch it after the fact as well. It will still be up. And the rest of the cemetery is open to the public today from eight to five if people are in the area and they just want to visit.
NNAMDIWell, speaking of music, what instrument do you play and what instrument does your husband play?
CHAMBERLINI played the oboe and the sousaphone, and my husband plays the berry saxophone.
NNAMDIJust wanted to know. We have to move on to a more difficult topic now. Suicide among veterans has been consistently high. In fact, there have been more than 6,000 veteran suicides each year from 2008 to 2016. What are some of the reasons for those startling numbers? And have suicides increased even more since the start of this pandemic?
CHAMBERLINSo when service members leave the military, they're leaving a culture that usually has a very clear mission, achievement standards that are easy to understand and centuries of history and culture, right? So it obviously varies a lot. But the transition to civilian life can be really hard, especially if it takes a long time to find that sense of purpose to replace what you just had and then that only gets harder the longer you spend. The pandemic is really piling on that as it is for everyone, like, creating more isolation, job loss, anxiety, people aren't able to be with their family members. So it's what you're seeing happening among the civilian world is happening among veterans and service members as well.
NNAMDIWell, veterans are entitled to healthcare, but are veterans offered adequate mental healthcare options? Do they have easy access to therapists, psychiatrists and prescription medication?
CHAMBERLINYeah, so one thing that's really important to keep in mind in this conversation about suicide generally isn't necessarily all about the status of a person's mental health. Having a firearm in the home puts you at much higher risk of dying by suicide for example. And veterans are more likely to own a firearm than their civilian counterparts are. There's also the issue of the VA having the right messaging to bring those veterans in to get the services that they need in the first place.
CHAMBERLINMost veterans who die by suicide sadly were never even on the VA's radar. And that's something that the Veteran's Administration is really looking at hard, and it has the funds to do. It's the second highest funded federal agency next to the DOD. So we also have to make sure, you know, by having a conversation about access to mental health services for veterans that we're not painting all veterans with a really broad brush. And saying, you know, they all are afflicted with PTSD and are all a danger to themselves and others.
CHAMBERLINHaving said that service members transitioning from active duty are eligible for mental health services at their local VA facilities for a year after their separation regardless of their status, of their discharge or if they retired or what.
NNAMDIWe only have about a minute or less left. But I do want to bring in John in Colonial Beach, Virginia. John, we don't have a lot of time, but we want to hear from you, go ahead, please.
JOHNI'll make it fast, Kojo. I spoke to you this past Memorial Day with Joe Galloway, and I do want to talk to Victoria.
JOHNBut Victoria, I hope after the program I can speak to you off the air and talk to you over the telephone. I want to talk to you about the (unintelligible) wall. I guess have you ever seen it? Have you seen the wall?
NNAMDIWe all have.
JOHNThere's something that you might be interested in. That is you look down the center it says 1975. The Vietnam War did not end in 1975. It ended in 1973 by the Vietnam Disengagement Act of Congress.
JOHNAnd we're trying to get those names to be classified as Vietnam Veterans. I'm working this project for 25 years, started out in Omaha. Well, I want to get back with you Victoria later on if that's okay.
NNAMDIWell, what we're going to do, John, is take your number and pass it on to Victoria. But we are out of time right now. Thank you for you call. Victoria, thank you so much for joining us and good luck next week.
CHAMBERLINThank you so much, Kojo. It was a pleasure.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we look at D.C.'s Vision Zero plan to stop traffic deaths by 2024. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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