Defense Minister Trine Bramsen pins medals on children of Danish veterans.

Defense Minister Trine Bramsen pins medals on children of Danish veterans. Denmark Ministry of Defense

How Denmark Supports Its Veterans’ Families

A new effort to help children and spouses could be a model for the United States.

“And that’s when it hits you,” she told me, her eyes shifting between me and her daughter tugging at her legs. “Jens may have left the Green Zone. But the Green Zone hasn’t left our dinner table. Our Sunday walk. Or when we set off firecrackers on New Year’s.”

I was attending the opening of a veterans’ family support unit, a relatively new  service that helps Danish families before, during, and after they send off their loved ones to a tour of duty. One of those occasional reminders of how some of our troops have left conflict, yet haven’t quite arrived back home. Or only to have a new conflict come home with them – like the story of Jens.

As we celebrate, honor, and commemorate U.S. veterans today, I extend my thoughts and deepest respects to the families on the “extended frontlines,” who, like the mother I met, provide more support and consolation to our veterans than any of the words I had in my speech cards that day.

They, too, have paid sacrifice and shouldered the burdens of war. Not in person and in the pains we normally associate with fighting. But they have in a larger sense made a commitment to the survival of freedom.

My home country of Denmark served alongside the United States in Afghanistan for 20 years. After an attack on our democracy and freedom that, in a time of great optimism, proved to us that end of history had not yet come. That the fight for our values would endure.

As I look back on Afghanistan and our veterans, I hope that same enduring fight continues. Not on distant fronts, but on the extended frontlines of family.

I hope we will continue to invest and engage in our capacity to bring our people home. To the immediate homecomings, rehabilitation and rekindling of relationships. But even more so in our capacity to support a lasting transition to family life. For the many who tread new civilian paths. And for the few who may, for a period, take a stumble or fall.

That obligation does not end with the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The United States has already come far in this regard. With specific missions that make good on the commitment not only to the men and women who in Lincoln’s words have “borne the battle,” but also to their immediate families.

Denmark’s efforts have had more humble beginnings. A formal veterans’ policy was put into writing just ten years ago. One that was ramped up only last year, when funding was secured for a range of services, including care homes, vocational rehabilitation, and family focused counseling.

In spite of the slow outset, Denmark’s efforts are picking up speed. And humility aside, I make the case that Denmark, with its population just shy of six million people, offers a small town-approach that may be all the more conducive to a transition to family life. And, in time, set new standards.

Town halls and networks bring together veterans, counselors and employers – public and private. Removing the red-tape and directing efforts to where they matter the most. With stories of success that inform better practices nationwide. Informal as it may be, it works.

Family support units, like the one I opened, have led to almost a four-fold increase in the number of families in contact with our veterans’ services within their first year of opening, rising to a total of about 360[VET1]  families by the end of last year. These units provide tailored counseling, behavioral therapy, and networking programs for both children and their parents. In-house and in close coordination with local offerings and volunteers. Before, during, and after a family member’s tour of duty.

Meanwhile, designated mentors support each and every one of our veterans when they take their first, fragile steps out of rehabilitation to the security of their homes and families. Wherever they are and whenever they need it.

We may have pulled out of conflict, but it is crucial that we remind ourselves – through dedication and action – that some of our troops are still so far from home. And that we have an obligation to tend to wounds less visible.

Measured against the size of America’s veteran efforts, Denmark’s approach warrants little mention in itself. The annual budget for family-support efforts is about $2 million, though they are meant to simply offer an extra level of service atop the health services already offered by local municipalities and the federal government. But starting from the bottom up, and laying out a policy based on direct user feedback and dumbed-down statistics, I argue that it may offer a useful perspective.

One that holds new opportunities for inspiration and collaboration with the United States. On research. Preventive therapy. Or on acute problems such as suicide, where efforts have been made to bring down the suicide rate of Denmark’s wartime veterans. Such much so, that the rate is now on par with the population in general.

And so, my message on this Veterans Day is one of hope. That our fight for freedom endures on the extended frontlines of our veterans’ families. Not just on this occasion when we, with salutes or a few seconds of silence, honor and commemorate before our lives go on. But that we seize the many occasions to come to bring those families closer to home.

Let’s make good on our commitment, just as they committed themselves and their loved ones. Let’s do right by them.

Trine Bramsen is Denmark’s Minister of Defense.