Stigma on the fourth of July

I’ve written about veterans issues for nearly a year.

I meandered into the topic through an investigative reporting class I took in the spring at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Professor Deborah Blum co-taught the course with Bill Lueders and Andy Hall from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The class collectively identified a central issue that Wisconsin public officials were discussing. Unemployment. Students researched various facets of job creation as well as the effectiveness of public and private efforts to reduce it.

Because my academic background is also in medical history, I’ve long been interested in writing about health. I found that discussion of Americans’ health and unemployment in the spring of 2012 focused on veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The physical and mental injuries that some of these veterans sustained while serving received daily attention in newspapers, providing either (1) an explanation for post-9/11 veterans’ high unemployment rate or, less often, (2) a depressing consequence of joblessness.

At the same time, few journalists considered the impact this coverage was having on veterans’ job prospects; and more generally, how their writing shaped social attitudes toward veterans’ employability  (the previous two links being exceptions). The assumptions that many news articles depicted – that veterans and servicemembers represented an injured class of people whose joblessness stemmed from war wounds – gave me an opportunity to challenge these ideas, while I explored the relationships among disability, stigma and unemployment.

Former military servicemembers represent a demographic minority (~1%) of whom I knew little. To be clear, I am not a veteran and will never know what veterans’ experiences feel like. There are flaws to creating a ‘collective experience’ – like all people, veteran’s stories are unique. In the six months I spent writing this piece, however, I observed parallels between veterans’ circumstances and ones I am familiar within my gay community. Fear, disclosure, tokenism and stigma, to name a few.

My work also represents my story of how a not particularly macho or patriotic gay guy came to write about the military. I discovered that many in the military aren’t stereotypically macho or patriotic either.

The article was published in The Capital Times as its July 4th cover story. Here it is (text link = online edition; photo = print edition PDF):

Service stigma: Disabled or not, veterans face job challenges.”

Service Stigma: Capital Times newspaper Cover Story

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