Monday, May 28, 2012

Remembering Our Warriors

Today is Memorial Day: the day we honor those who have served in our country’s armed forces and particularly those who died during that service. For me, this includes a rather large number of my relatives who served, including my uncle Peter, serving in the Air Force in World War II, who lost his life in a jeep accident on August 15, 1945—the day Japan surrendered.

Two of my mother’s cousins also lost their lives in that same war: Joseph A. Cook was a lieutenant in the Air Force whose plane went down over the Himalayas in March 1944; his brother Ernest M. Cook was an Aviation Chief Ordnanceman on one of the aircraft carriers during the series of battles in October 1944 collectively known as the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The remains of these men were never recovered. I never met them, nor my uncle either. But today in particular, they are on my mind, along with all my many relatives who survived their military service, from the Civil War up to the present.

War always changes a person, even if he or she comes out of it still breathing. This post is about all those who served and survived—physically, at least—but whose service is and has been shamefully rewarded. I find this shocking, because all Native Americans have always honored our warriors. Every powwow begins with a flag ceremony honoring them all, both the living and those who have walked on, whether their military service took their lives or not. A warrior who serves in peacetime, ready to defend his country, is ready to make the ultimate sacrifice and is equally honored with those who took part in actual combat.

I remember my days at University of California at Berkeley during the Vietnam War. Many students there assumed that all military personnel were evil baby-killers and concentrated their fury on veterans and persons in ROTC. I didn’t. I agreed that it was a war we should not have gotten into, but my sympathy was for the young men drafted and sent into a war that could not be won. They all came home damaged; the physical injuries were treated, but the psychological injuries were not.

Fighting in war changes a person forever. For that matter, simply serving in the military changes a person forever, even if you never come under fire or take part in any action of war. And if you have been injured or otherwise traumatized during your military service, your country owes you a debt to repair the damage in every possible way.

Unfortunately, our country fails to meet that obligation. Personnel coming home with gaping wounds or missing body parts usually get appropriate treatment, but other physical and psychological injuries may be brushed aside. For example, my late father-in-law suffered a permanent hearing loss while serving in the Persian Gulf during World War II; the Army literally blackmailed him into pretending the impairment did not exist by refusing to send him back to the USA or discharge him unless he signed a statement that he had no such injury. I know a woman who served after the Gulf War fighting ended and was raped by an officer; he was merely blocked from future promotion, and she was considered unharmed. Treatment for PTSD was not considered really necessary back then unless you suffered permanent physical injury.

The armed forces and the federal government go to great lengths to prevent veterans with physical and psychological service-related disabilities from accessing the care they need. A vet who doesn’t live near a military base has to depend on local civilian facilities—many of which do not accept Tri-Care, the military’s insurance coverage for veterans of all services. The Veterans Administration is hopelessly behind on processing the paperwork for veterans who need physical or mental help, although some centers are worse than others. Veterans often wait months, even years, to get the help they need. This means that many veterans coming home now from Iraq or Afghanistan go without the treatment they need to resume normal civilian life.

Worse, veterans with psychological disabilities are largely considered as dangerous and often can’t get jobs. Why? Because employers have read or watched too many news reports about desperate veterans who went berserk and killed people. Moreover, employers who are not themselves veterans generally don’t appreciate the value of military-acquired skills. Vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have a significantly higher rate of unemployment than persons with no military background.

According to Bobby Shriver's article in today’s Los Angeles Times (May 28, 2012), “Los Angeles has the highest reported number of vets in the nation... According to the latest count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the number of homeless individuals in Los Angeles County dropped by 3% between 2009 and 2011. The numbers declined for all groups except one: veterans. There were 9,000 homeless veterans here in 2011, a 24% increase over 2009. And the number of chronically homeless veterans—individuals who are homeless because of severe mental disabilities—increased by more than 100%, from 1,243 to 2,520. And more are coming.”

Shriver notes that the nearly 400-acre VA center in Los Angeles has large grounds which are leased out as sports facilities, a dog park, a public golf course, and several businesses. Meanwhile, the VA buildings—some of which were specifically designed to serve to treat veterans with mental disabilities—sit empty, decaying, and unused.

People can see if a vet has lost a limb and sympathize; but PTSD doesn’t show physical scars. And vets who served in multiple deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan (that means most of them) are the ones who suffer most from psychological disabilities.

Look around your own town. If it’s like most large towns, a large percentage of our recently-discharged veterans are living on the streets and being regarded as lazy, irresponsible, and dangerous. Without homes, they become scruffy, go without proper nourishment, and look worse and more dangerous every day. It’s a feedback loop: the worse you look, the worse you feel, and so you start looking even worse.

An average of 18 veterans commit suicide every day—20% of the national daily rate for all persons in the USA. The VA estimates that a veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes—some 6,500 veterans a year. These veterans lost their lives because of their military service: it just took a little longer for them to fall down.

There is no excuse for this shabby treatment of our living veterans. Today we honor specifically those who died in combat; but all living veterans who face the likelihood of premature death because of their military service should also be honored today. These are casualties we can—and should—prevent, or at least treat honorably.

If you see a homeless vet on the street, don’t ignore him (or her). Talk with that vet, say “Thank you” for the sacrifices the vet made, offer a meal. And try, really try, to get that vet a job and the treatment the vet deserves, and write to your senators and representatives, both state and federal. If enough of us do this—well, it’s an election year, isn’t it? Politicians will make great efforts to do what their voters want them to do, and if the voters demand seriously improved treatment for our living veterans, they’ll listen, because politicians want to keep their jobs and advance their political careers.

And in the meantime, do whatever you can to help a veteran in need to get the life he or she deserves as a just and obligatory compensation for the service that vet has given to our country.

We owe them all, big time. And on Memorial Day, we should remember the living as well as the dead, and vow to treat the living with the honor and assistance they deserve.

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