Friday, May 23, 2014

A Memorial Day Lament: How the U.S. Fails Its Veterans

“Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?”  --from a 1969 film of the same name

Qualification.  I’m not a veteran.  Have never put on a uniform and fought on behalf of my country and fellow citizens.  My Dad was a vet, served in the Korean War.  I’ve been blessed to know many vets as friends, neighbors, colleagues and parishioners.  Regardless of how I’ve felt about the morality or rightness of any war in which our veterans fought, I’ve always believed that the very least America can do in thanks to these women and men, is to take good care of them once they come back home and hang up their uniforms. 

This doesn’t seem to be happening, at least according to recent allegations about the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the federal agency responsible for veteran services.  It’s been reported that staff at VA hospitals across the country may have manipulated waiting lists to cover up the agency’s ineptitude at providing compassionate, competent and most important, timely care, for America’s wounded warriors.  At one VA facility, up to 40 vets may have died while waiting to see a doctor. 

So imagine this.  You are a veteran. You served one, two or more deployments in America’s latest wars, Iraq or Afghanistan, or both.  At best you need the VA for basic medical care and services to readjust to civilian life.  At worst you suffer from post traumatic stress disorder or lost a limb in the war.  You are haunted by violent, unrelenting memories. Traumatized by war, you struggle with an addiction or mental illness.  Maybe you’re homeless. You are a Vietnam vet with cancer linked to Agent Orange, a World War II or Korean War vet. And you need help. 

But when you reach out, the phone line is perpetually busy or you’re told it will be months before you can see a doctor. The nearest VA facility is hundreds of miles away or that disability check you need is caught up in a backlog of millions of others.  And yup, every few years or so, the latest VA scandal is exploited by pols worried about re-election and a media seeking sensational headlines.  A few heads roll and there’s a series of angry press conferences and congressional hearings and promises are made and then the next big story comes along and vets are essentially forgotten. Again. Except for Veterans Day and Memorial Day.

I wish I could say this reality was an aberration, that from generation to generation we’ve treated our veterans with dignity, respect and generosity. But the truth?  In 1781 the army which defeated Great Britain was demobilized, without any discharge pay.  In the midst of the Great Depression, 43,000 World War I veterans and their supporters were so desperate to redeem their war service bonuses that they marched on and occupied Washington, D.C. In response the army and police routed them, killing two veterans, a twelve year old boy and injuring 135 others.  Vietnam veterans faced a hostile public. Today there are 2.3 million veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and 22 million veterans total. 

They served. But how do we serve them, now that they are home for good? 

I’m not sure why the United States has so often failed its veterans.  Maybe it is because the all volunteer army has negated the “we’re all in this together” ideal of national commitment and service.  Now it is the very, very few who serve. Active military folks represent less than .80 percent of the entire U.S. population.  How many of us non-veterans have done anything to help or sacrifice in any recent war effort?  We’ve not even paid our taxes for the last two wars, which were instead financed completely by government debt.  Communal sacrifice?  Shared responsibility?   In 2014 vets may seem more like “them” than “us”. 

Maybe it is because we do not want to be reminded of what we ask soldiers to do on our behalf.  War is hell. Who among us really wants to hear the gory details, or face the true price paid by soldiers for the hell on earth which is armed combat? We’ve seemed more than willing to go to war as a country in the past decade or so, just as long as someone else does it for us. Makes me wonder how quick the U.S. would be to wage war if, before one shot was fired, we’d all have to be willing to serve too.  Then perhaps we’d take more seriously the toll that war takes on human beings, how it breaks hearts, maims bodies and wounds souls. 

So in the shadow of Memorial Day, the day we are supposed to remember and honor our nation’s war dead, let’s do more than just pin on a flag lapel pin or wave the red, white and blue at a parade or stand at attention when the national anthem is played. That’s easy patriotism, mere ritual, which asks nothing of us. Instead let’s thank our vets directly, and not just through polite words. Let’s really care for them. Pay enough in taxes to make the VA a world class agency. Demand accountability from our government.  And most important, recognize what veterans have done for us. What they gave. What they sacrificed.

They answered the call. Now it is our turn.



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