Today is Veterans Day in the U.S., and the Department of Veterans Affairs reminds us of the purpose:
Veterans Day is the day set aside to thank and honor ALL those who served honorably in the military – in wartime or peacetime.Â In fact, Veterans Day is largely intended to thank LIVING veterans for their service, to acknowledge that their contributions to our national security are appreciated, and to underscore the fact that all those who served – not only those who died – have sacrificed and done their duty.
There are plenty of speeches, parades, and other events marking this holiday. The problem is that on a day-to-day basis, we arenât showing proper appreciation of all that our veterans have done and the sacrifices theyâve made. The shortcoming is most apparent when it comes to treating veterans with mental health problems caused by their service.
The Washington Postâs Dana Priest and Anne Hull wrote a series of wrenching articles (published in June) on veterans returning from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder. Bureaucratic hurdles and a shortage of mental health resources leave many post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers unable to get sufficient help; many are unable to work, and end up facing financial as well as psychological turmoil. Last month, Hull and Priest also published an article about the pain and struggle that one veteranâs PTSD means for his family.
In yesterdayâs Dallas Morning News, James Hohmann wrote about the current number of PTSD sufferers and new Army efforts to help them:
More than 48,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD, according to a Veterans Affairs spokeswoman. VA psychologist Patricia Jackley said her Dallas-based unit has enrolled more than 300 patients from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“War affects people. It [the problem] may not present in the first month. It may be a year or five years down the road,” Dr. Jackley said. “We like to say we’re the Motel 6 of mental health. We’ll leave the light on for them.”
The Army has started post-deployment check-ins to try to reduce the stigma of asking for help for mental problems. As of October, every soldier in the Army should have received some training about identifying and treating PTSD, said Lt. Gen. James Campbell, who pushed the effort at the Pentagon as director of staff for the Army.
“In conflicts past, we’ve given less attention to the wounds that are not so visible,” Gen. Campbell said.
He warned that the emphasis will result in higher numbers of veterans diagnosed for mental problems. “The normal response would be that’s bad news because the numbers are going up,” he said. “But it means now we can address it.”
Depression is another problem that affects many veterans and can interfere with their efforts to rejoin civilian life. In a study just published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers examined information from the Veterans Administration for the years 1999 to 2004, and found almost 808,000 veterans diagnosed with depressive symptoms; 1,683 of those veterans took their own lives, and the youngest group (ages 18-44) was at higher risk of suicide.
Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan arenât the only ones troubled by PTSD and depression. Many veterans who returned from conflicts years or decades ago are still suffering. A new report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness found that veterans make up a quarter of this countryâs homeless population â nearly 200,000 were homeless on any given night last year â and the VA has said that 45 percent of homeless veterans suffer from mental illness.
An editorial in todayâs New York Times sums up veteransâ plight and the appropriate response:
There is little outright hostility toward returning military personnel these days; few Americans are reviling them as âbaby killersâ or blaming them for a botched war of choice launched by the White House. Indeed, both Congress and the White House have been hymning their praises in the run-up to Veterans Day. But all too often, soldiers who return from Iraq or Afghanistan â and those who served in Vietnam or Korea â have been left to fend for themselves with little help from the government. â¦
Tens of thousands of reservists and National Guard troops, whose jobs were supposedly protected while they were at war, were denied prompt re-employment upon their return or else lost seniority, pay and other benefits. Some 1.8 million veterans were unable to get care in veteransâ facilities in 2004 and lacked health insurance to pay for care elsewhere. Meanwhile, veterans seeking disability payments faced huge backlogs and inordinate delays in getting claims and appeals processed.
The biggest stain this year was the scandalous neglect of outpatients at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and a sluggish response to the needs of wounded soldiers at veterans clinics and hospitals. Much of this neglect stemmed from the Bush administrationâs failure to plan for a long war with mounting casualties and over-long tours of duty to compensate for a shortage of troops. â¦
To their credit, Congress and the administration have poured billions of added dollars into veteransâ programs and streamlined procedures in a scramble to catch up with the need. That is only appropriate. The entire burden of todayâs wars has been carried by a voluntary military force and its families. The larger public has not faced a draft, paid higher taxes or been asked to make any other sacrifice. The least a grateful nation should do is support the troops upon their return.
Treatment, disability payments, and other assistance for those wounded â mentally or physically â during military service will be hugely expensive. We canât shirk from the cost of providing for those whoâve already paid an enormous price.