Our society tends to view people who have served in the military as being, generally, more honorable and virtuous than the average person. We react with strong disapproval when someone suggests that military veterans might, in any way, be less virtuous than those who have not served in the military. Question: Could this custom to honor veterans be a factor that has (ironically) actually contributed to the high incidence of homelessness among veterans? In such a serious matter as homelessness, are we really doing veterans any favors by taking some questions off of the table?
This article attempts to explain a dynamic which may, in some cases, contribute to the higher rates of homelessness among veterans. First, we present several terms which are needed to simplify the discussion:
- PSC = Pre-disposition to Poor Self-Control
- MID = Military Imposed Discipline
- LHT = Learned Helplessness Training
- PML = PSC minus MID plus LHT = Increases the risk of homelessness
Overview of the PML dynamic:
- Before joining the service, some prospective recruits suffer from PSC.
- While in-service the PSC can be essentially “patched-over” by MID.
- MID unintentionally normalizes, encourages and celebrates a type of LHT.
- Following separation (post-service), the MID ends. At this point, (unless an adaptive psychic change has occurred) an individual may find himself reverting back to his original PSC – but now with the additional burden of his LHT.
- PSC minus MID plus LHT places a discharged veteran at a higher risk for homelessness by reducing his ability to self-exert, self-control and self-direct.
The standard explanation
What causes the higher rates of homelessness among veterans? The standard answer refers to the well-known factors of PTSD, combat and training injuries, and family stress due to the hardships of the military life-style. (Note: these are all “honorable” factors.)
The PML explanation does not mean to suggest that any of these recognized causes of veteran homelessness are incorrect. PML is merely an additional possible explanation. PML could occur either alone or in conjunction with any of the commonly recognized causes of homelessness. PML may be entirely absent in many (or even most) cases of veteran homelessness.
How many American adults are homeless? 1 in 500 – or about 0.2%. (There are many homeless children in America but, for the purposes of this article, we will only consider adults, in order to be able to compare with the number of homeless veterans – since all veterans are adults.)
How many veterans are homeless? 1 in 200 – or about 0.5%. How many American adults are veterans? 1 in 8 – or about 13%. What proportion of the adult homeless population consists of veterans? 1 in 4 – or about 26%.
So, being a veteran more than doubles your risk of homelessness from 1 in 500 to about 1 in 200. Or from 0.2% to 0.5%.
Does Poor Self-Control (PSC) exist?
Is there any evidence to support the belief that PSC does indeed affect some military recruits? How will PSC-suffering trainees internalize the message of the Drill Sergeant?
We propose that there exists a small fraction (less than 1 in 200) of military recruits who start their training with a innate pre-disposition to lower-than-average self-care and/or poorer-than-average self-direction.
To support this claim, we refer you to the commonly recited anecdotes in which many service members were said to have “volunteered” to join the service because a judge had offered them a choice between jail or the military. Assuming that these stories were based in fact, then, for this small group of “volunteers”, we can understand how the imposed discipline of the military lifestyle (MID) might have proven to have been a type of “behavioral medication” – something that would have helped to keep them on-track and productive.
When the period of military service ends, the imposed discipline also ends. At that point, full self-discipline and self-direction must begin. For that small fraction of PSC-suffering service members who were being behaviorally “medicated” by the MID, their original condition of poor self-discipline might easily re-emerge.
Also, some recruits join the service because they need a job – and the service is a guaranteed job. People who have strong self-control and self-discipline can usually find a job on their own. Because they will keep on looking.
Imposed-discipline vs self-discipline
It is a common perception among military recruits that some aspects of their training actively dissuade the trainees from taking the initiative to care for themselves and to direct themselves. Recruits are required to get out of bed at a certain time, exercise at a certain time, work at a certain time, etc. The only way in which the recruit exercises self-control is in the sense that he determines to do whatever the Drill Sergeant tells him to do.
While that is indeed a type of self-control, it is, not a type of self control that requires independent thinking. In this sense, the discipline could be best understood as imposed-discipline, rather than self-discipline.
Also remember that the recruit’s decision to follow the Drill Sergeant’s direction is not exactly an exercise in free will – in the usual sense of the word. Because there is an implicit threat of violence and humiliation which is directed toward the recruit to remind him that the alternative to the “decision” to obey the Drill Sergeant is not going to be pleasant.
Fortunately, most recruits make it through Basic Training. From hindsight they look back on this period with pride and with a sense that they surprised themselves at their ability to stay on track and productive. A healthy person internalizes the voice of the Drill Sergeant and carries it with him for the rest of his life as a type of cheer-leader.
Hurry up and wait
Learned Helplessness Training (LHT) is a form of behavioral conditioning in which a person is trained to take no action to care for themselves. So, for example, when a situation comes up which would naturally prompt an individual to take some self-care action, then, a person who has been conditioned into learned helplessness will just put up with the difficulty and do nothing. This topic was first studied in 1967, when researchers trained dogs to take no action to avoid electrical shocks.
Are there some aspects of military training which (inadvertently) channel a service member’s thinking toward a type of Learned Helplessness Training (LHT)?
Service members have an old saying: “Hurry up and wait.” It is used to describe any situation in which soldiers are directed to rapidly form a line – only to wait while the line slowly moves forward, processing one soldier’s needs at a time. It can be very frustrating when a person first encounters the “hurry up and wait” dynamic, but, after a while, everyone seems to get used to it.
When a soldier returns to civilian life, the “Hurry up and wait” dynamic needs to transition over to: “You have to do everything for yourself – or it won’t get done.” For most people, this change comes as a relief. But, to the extent that a soldier has been conditioned into LHT, the act of re-learning all of life’s extra responsibilities can (psychologically speaking) present a challenge.
The Army takes care of that
In a slight variation on the “hurry up and wait” theme, there are many tasks which soldiers are instructed to let someone else take care of:
Finding a job? You wait for “new orders.” Deciding what to wear? You wear a uniform. Getting to and from work? You wait for the van. Finding a place to live? You live in the barracks. Getting food to eat? You eat at the chow hall. Finding a doctor? You go on sick call.
In each of these instances, soldiers are expected to use the “system” in order to address the need in question. If a service member decides to take the initiative, and work outside the system, he usually winds up with a negative reaction from his supervisor.
Do all of these instances of using the “system” work out to be a type of LHT? For most people, the conditioning to in-action is fairly easy to overcome. But for some, it might be harder. Once a person returns to civilian life, they will have to perform each of these self-care activities using their own initiative and decision-making abilities. Failure on any one of these tasks will place a person at a higher risk for homelessness.
Use it or loose it?
The long period of imposed-discipline (while on active duty) and relatively un-exercised self-discipline could (unintentionally) serve to atrophy the final strength of the service member’s self-discipline at the point of separation from active duty.
It makes sense that an individual’s personal skill/ability of self-discipline directly correlates to their skill/ability to hold a job and thus avoid homelessness. The PML framework simply suggests that the higher incidence of homelessness among veterans could, in some cases, be due to a depressed skill/ability of self-discipline.
The PML perspective relies on some ideas which are obviously un-flattering to military veterans. Because of this, we can understandably expect that these ideas will be viewed negatively by some. Ironically, the supposedly “pro-veteran” thinking (which would reject PML out of hand) might, unintentionally, create a barrier to helping that small fraction of homeless veterans who may indeed have been affected by atrophied self-discipline.
A thought experiment
Lets imagine a scenario in which the missing MID could be restored. How might that impact the post-service veteran’s likelihood of becoming homeless?
Lets imagine if a Drill Sergeant were to be assigned to follow an at-risk-for-homelessness veteran post-service and use the MID techniques to enforce a schedule of: 1) An “early to bed early to rise” sleep pattern, 2) Look for work diligently, 3) Study to improve job skills, 4) Healthy socialization, etc. (Again, using the same MID-based threats of violence and humiliation that worked so well during the period of training and active duty.)
Let’s assume that the MID-enabled veteran retains the same overall level of mental and physical health that he had at the point that his active service ended. So how might this imaginary post-service MID impact his chances of becoming homeless? The answer should be obvious.
The purpose of this imaginary scenario is to make clear that there are very real differences between imposed-discipline and self-discipline. For some people, externally imposed-discipline (i.e., MID) is an effective means of keeping them on-track.
Get help and get active
Are you a veteran? Do you consider yourself to be at risk for homelessness? Is it possible that your service period may have weakened some areas of your self-discipline or self-direction? Our point is that self-discipline is a variable. We believe that it can be damaged. But it can also, sometimes, be healed by a change in perspective.
Get Help Get Active is a 100% free service designed to help people (veteran or non-veteran) who sense that their own self-discipline skills are below the point where they themselves reasonably expect that they should be. We offer free, confidential and customized encouragement to help folks with the career goals that they themselves pick. And you can get some cash, too.
America is the land of opportunity for people who are willing to exert themselves in the realms of 1) Working, 2) Looking for work and 3) Studying to improve job skills. If you are able to stay on track on your own, then that is great. But if you would like to get a boost along the way, consider joining up.
Remember, you will never pay anything. Get help and get active!