Commentary: The disgraceful treatment of our veterans

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 13, 2007 

As you do your holiday shopping this year and think about a big turkey dinner and piles of gifts and the good life that most Americans enjoy, please spare a thought for those who made it all possible: Those who serve in our military and the veterans who've worn the uniform.

There are some new statistics that give us reason to be ashamed for the way that our country has treated those who've served and sacrificed for us.

Those statistics damn the politicians who start every speech by thanking the troops and veterans and blessing them. They indict our national leaders who turn up at military bases and the annual conventions of veteran's organizations and use troops and veterans as a backdrop for their photo-ops.

Consider this:

  • An average of 18 veterans commit suicide each and every day of the year, according to recent statistics from the Veterans Administration (VA). That’s 126 veterans who kill themselves every week. Or some 6,552 who take their own lives each year. Our veterans are killing themselves at twice the rate of other Americans.
  • One quarter of the homeless people in America are military veterans. That’s one in every four. Is that ragged man huddled on the steam grate in a brutal winter wind a Vietnam vet? Did that younger man panhandling for pocket change on the street corner fight in Kandahar or Fallujah?

For the past four years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has been insisting that it’s doing everything it needs to for the nation’s veterans. That's simply not true, particularly when it comes to the VA's treatment of mental health issues.

As my McClatchy colleague Chris Adams has reported in a series of groundbreaking stories this year, the VA mental health system — even by its own measures — wasn’t prepared to give returning veterans the mental health care they need.

The experts say that between 20 and 30 percent of all troops returning from combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But many of VA hospitals didn’t have the special PTSD programs that experts say are vital. Soldiers returning from Iraq are allowed to slip unnoticed into their old lives, and neither the Department of Defense nor the VA does anything to monitor their mental health.

The VA keeps telling Congress that all is well. That's not true, either. As Adams reported, the VA has been using fudged or inflated numbers to do so. And after years of promising that it's getting a growing backlog of disability compensation applications under control, things actually got worse this year.

No matter whether they've been wounded and need follow-up care and support, or whether they're coming apart at the seams and feeling suicidal, they sometimes must wait months for an appointment to be evaluated and treated at VA medical centers.

The same people who don’t blink at spending $3 billion a week on their war of choice in Iraq were the ones who cut the VA budget and privatized maintenance at Walter Reed Army Hospital and opposed every attempt to expand benefits for veterans old and young.

They're the same people who turned a blind eye as their corporate sponsors and private donors looted billions of dollars from the Treasury with no-compete contracts and bloated bills for everything from food for the troops to fuel for their tanks and trucks.

As a wave of wounded troops suffering brain injuries from the blasts of roadside bombs and landmines poured into military hospitals, these people, posing as fiscally responsible budget makers, were cutting in half the money spent on research into brain injuries.

These frauds who love to pose as wartime leaders sat back and did nothing as a cruel bureaucracy sent bill collectors out to harass double amputee veterans for thousands of dollars because they neglected to turn their armored vests and other gear in to the supply sergeant after they were blown apart on the battlefield.

They did nothing as the Army became ever more conservative, even stingy, in the number of injured and wounded soldiers it judged worthy of full disability pensions. Soldiers who suffered brain injuries and PTSD so severe that they couldn't function were put on the street with a 30 percent disability pension — $700 a month — to support a wife and three children.

Neglecting our war veterans and the widows and orphans that result from our wars is as American as apple pie. It’s nothing new. But in the past we always waited until after the war’s end to forget those who'd fought the war.

This may be the first time in our history that we began to neglect and forget our troops during a war.

All of this is shameful — shameful for a people whose freedom and prosperity rests on the backs of those soldiers but who've forgotten them so completely that they haven't held their Congress and their president responsible for this stain on our honor.

The next smarmy politician who shouts, “God bless our troops” ought to be tarred and feathered and ridden out of Washington on a rail for sheer hypocrisy.

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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