The following OpEd was written by Ryan Manion for Thought Catalog, and released on April 24th, 2020.
America is still weeks, if not months, away from coming out of the worst ravages of the novel coronavirus and its economic toll. That’s a daunting prospect for all of us, and in our physical isolation, we are searching for ways to find healing and resilience in the face of uncertainty against an invisible enemy.
Many experts are anticipating that the mental and emotional fallout of this pandemic will be as damaging as the virus itself. According to a recent Forbes article, more than a third of American’s claim that the pandemic has seriously impacted their mental health. It’s no surprise that “stay at home” orders can lead to social isolation and loneliness or that the experience of a lost loved one could throw any of us into a tailspin of grief and depression.
The closest reference point for many of us is 9/11. As a small business owner, I remember feeling the impact of the economic downturn that followed. With a father and a brother serving in the Marine Corps, I was also immediately worried for their safety—worries that were proven justified when my brother was killed by a sniper in Iraq six years later.
Just as in 2001, what concerns me most is where our citizenry will be left emotionally and mentally after all that we experience, particularly when we are stripped of the ability to be physically close to our friends, family, and neighbors who all nourish our souls in these difficult times.
It is absolutely imperative that we find ways to recover the sense of community and closeness we had in 2001. Only then, will we rediscover the resilience and emerge triumphant.
It’s here that I believe our military community can teach us a great deal.
As a Gold Star sister myself and the president of a national veteran serving organization of more than 100,000 members, I have no shortage of examples of what strength and resilience look like when a community comes together. I’ve seen particularly in recent days as our veterans and families of the fallen have stepped up to serve others and stay engaged with one another in these days of uncertainty.
Just this week, in fact, I saw a Navy widow with two young children collect and deliver much-needed medical supplies to health workers in California. After losing her husband a few years ago, this young woman has found healing in stepping outside of herself to serve others. It was no surprise that she once again turned to service during the current crisis.
Also this week, I saw a Marine veteran commit to a weekly ruck (walking with a weighted backpack) to a grocery store two miles away to purchase items to then ruck another few miles to donate to a local food bank. He shared his experience via video on social media, and invited others to join him virtually each week to do the same. By combining fitness and service with social connection, this Marine laid the groundwork for how we can establish emotional health in trying times.
The military community has taught me that the key to emotional and mental well-being is twofold: feeling connected to one another and providing a service to others that brings purpose and fulfillment. I can think of no group of people more deeply rooted in social connection or primed for service than our military. They have much to teach the rest of us as we prepare for what will be a challenging time in our emotional lives.
The military is certainly not immune to mental health struggles. We’ve witnessed their setbacks since the global war on terrorism began, and we’re seeing it now. In fact, since the pandemic hit the US, Veterans Crisis lines have seen a 12% surge in call volume. They are both a vulnerable population at this time, as well as the group we can look to for modeling resilience.
Service members know what it means to operate in less-than-ideal conditions with limited resources. They face fear and the unknown on a regular basis and accomplish the mission despite what they lack. They know the dangers of personal isolation and going it alone. They have an incredible system of unity, support, and mutual accountability toward one another. They understand loss and feelings of helplessness, but find purpose through serving.
The novel coronavirus requires us to summon the deepest reservoirs of courage, patience and grit. We can be resilient, but only if we continue to find unity, connection, and shared commitment to another. If we do not treat the mental and emotional well-being of our citizens with the seriousness that we are treating our physical and economic health, we stand to lose a great deal as a country. That includes lives, but it also includes our collective understanding about who we are as a people—a patchwork of communities that come together in a struggle against a common enemy.