May 21, 2014 —
On Monday, Memorial Day, people across America will pause to remember the men and women who died while serving in our armed forces. Locally, many of our towns will hold parades to pay tribute not only to the fallen, but also to honor those living who have served our country.
These days, if the news reports are as bad as they sound (numerous investigations are yet to be completed), the Veterans Administration (VA), which is tasked with serving our veterans, is in need of serious repair. You’ve heard the news—veterans reportedly dying while waiting for health care. News reports allege dishonesty and cover-up on the part of VA employees who phonied the figures to make VA hospitals look like they were seeing patients in a timely manner (as required) when they were not. Like everyone else hearing these shocking stories, we require answers about what happened and why, and we demand resolution of the problems so other veterans’ lives are not so cavalierly put at risk.
The real scandal, however, is that we hardly ever treat our veterans as well as they deserve. Last year, nearly 50,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were either homeless or in a federal program designed to help keep them from becoming homeless. Of the 2.3 million American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars an estimated 14 to 20% suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and/or severe depression, and some estimates are higher. An estimated 50% of these do not seek treatment, and of those who do, about half do not receive adequate treatment. Another 19% are estimated to suffer from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), from receiving head injuries; even a hit on the head or blast waves from explosions can cause lasting brain injury. (Seven percent of vets from these wars reportedly have both PTSD and TBI.) In addition, according to statistics, 39% of returning service members abuse alcohol and 3% reportedly abuse drugs. These figures don’t even include the Gulf War or older conflicts, going all the way back to WWII. Lastly, we come to suicide, which in 2013 the Department of Veterans Affairs conceded was “epidemic,” claiming more lives than combat (www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/01/14/169364733/u-s-militarys-suicide-... ).
Last year, the VA and the Department of Defense stopped disclosing suicide numbers to the public. In 2012, the last full year for which these statistics are available, there were 319 suicides among active component service members and 203 members of the reserves (73 reserve service members and 130 National Guard members), according to the Armed Forces Medical Examiner Service. In addition, 841 service members had one or more attempted suicides reported in 2012.
While the recent focus of attention has been on veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, the problem is reportedly worse among older veterans; about 70% of veterans who commit suicide are over age 50. (www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/01/veteran-suicide-rate_n_2599019.html ). In 2010, about 22 veterans (of all wars) committed suicide each day.
The VA employs more than 300,000 men and women and is the second largest department in the federal government after the Pentagon. It serves more than 21 million veterans. Fixing a large bureaucracy will be challenging, but fixing the VA must be done, and done once and for all. It is not as if the VA has not been down this road before. Those old enough to remember the Vietnam War era can recall the poor condition of VA hospitals and services back then, too.
Currently the U.S. spends 57% of its discretionary budget on the Department of Defense, on waging war and on nuclear weapons programs, but spends just 5.5% of discretionary funds on veteran’s benefits. Imagine if we spent less on prosecuting wars and more to help our veterans (more, too, on health, housing, education, transportation and other services for the benefit of our whole society).
Meantime, as we mark Memorial Day by thinking of those who died on behalf of their country, let us also reach out as individuals and as local communities to those of our veterans who need our help. If you look, you will find them here among us.
[Editor’s note: The following is the crisis hotline number for veterans with PTSD and for suicide prevention: www.veteransandptsd.com/suicide-prevention.html  or call 800/273-8255 and then press 1.]