The Last Full Measure

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* By Adam Burnier *

War has shattered both minds and bodies since before written history.  From each conflict soldiers emerge not only with physical wounds but also with mental scars.  Though the name by which we know these invisible wounds has evolved, the threat they pose to veterans remains the same.  Shell shock, battle fatigue, operational exhaustion, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are all reiterations of the same condition which has been scientifically recognized since World War I.  The issue itself may not be new, but we are only now realizing the extent of its influence.  A recent explosion of such cases has many worried that not enough resources exist to help the returning heroes.

To give a sense of the issue’s magnitude, approximately 500,000 men and women sleep on the streets of America each night.  Over 100,000 of those unfortunates are veterans, men and women who fought our nation’s wars, people to whom most would agree America owes a great debt.  So why are so many veterans homeless? For the most part, homelessness in veterans is not directly caused by poverty, but by the inability of veterans to readjust to society after war.  Each person reacts differently to the traumatic events of war, and those who are unable to cope with the psychological stress are classified as victims of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Because the majority of homeless veterans are single men with no relationships, many lack the support needed to conquer their mental illness, and resort to alcoholism and substance abuse to stave off depression.  These practices pose the greatest threat to veterans, which is why it is essential to have quality financial aid and medical care available to the veteran community (Background & Statistics).

Veterans United for Truth is an organization that advocates the proper treatment and care of US veterans.  In 2007, Veterans United for Truth partnered with Veterans for Common Sense to file suit against the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) concerning the quality of veteran health care.  Bob Handy, the head of Veterans United for Truth, knows that for many of the twenty four million veterans currently living in the United States, promises of financial aid and mental care are not fulfilled.  The trial is currently held up in the Ninth Circuit of the United States court of Appeals, but earlier on in the trial, a scandal emerged from the upper echelons of the VA.  The revelation of a classified email from Ira Katz, the director of mental health at the VA, sparked outrage in the community.  The email urged members of the VA to “hush up” about the accurate statistics of veteran suicide rates.  Finally, the VA admitted that, by their record, eighteen veterans commit suicide each day in the United States (VA Official Accused).  What the VA did not say was that those eighteen only include the veterans that the VA has on record, or who are receiving care from the VA, not accounting for the millions of others who do not apply for care, or show up in the obituaries as casualties of drunk driving or unexplained motor vehicle accidents.  Veterans United for Truth believes the estimate of eighteen suicides per day to be conservative, and suspects that the issue is of a far greater magnitude than anyone previously suspected.

The facts are shocking, and their discovery gives rise to several key questions.  If these statistics were kept secret, how much has the VA been hiding, and perhaps more importantly, is the VA qualified to be responsible for the care of our veterans? According to Bob Handy, they aren’t.  “The VA often treats veterans with drugs instead of real care, while the majority of applicants are put on a waiting list.  You can see many vets from Vietnam who are homeless and have various mental conditions.  These veterans self medicate on booze or on drugs, and it is clear that the VA is not doing an adequate job remedying this,” says Handy.

The lack of proper care is largely due to the backlog of veteran benefit claims.  According to Jason Leopold, a writer for Atlantic Free Press, the VA estimated before the War in Iraq that the number of veterans returning with PTSD would cap at 8,000.  Today, over 300,000 veterans from Iraq suffer from PTSD, and less than half are accepted for benefits by the VA (Leopold).

But why has veteran care gone so downhill? It would be easy to pin the blame completely on the VA, but they are not the only ones responsible.  The government shares the responsibility, as the VA relies on funding and guidance from the government to provide adequate care.  Most experts agree that lack of money is not the only problem.  True, the current VA budget is not enough to provide for the growing veteran population, but increases in VA funding have made headway in that regard.  In 2011, the VA will achieve a record high budget of 125 billion dollars according to Jordan Bryant, an author for Military.com (Bryant).  In Handy’s opinion, the root of the issue lies in the fact that the government behaves as would an “irresponsible parent,” providing funding but not exercising supervision to make sure the money is used for what was intended or that it reaches the right places.  So in reality, it is no wonder that the VA lacks the facilities and the employees needed to provide veterans with proper medical care.

Now that the war in Iraq is nearing its end and thousands of veterans are returning home it is clear that decisive action from the community is needed.  The media often refuses to speak up about the problem because it is “old news,” and less exciting than the latest popular trends.  Presidents and congressmen applaud veterans for courageous deeds and make hollow promises to improve veteran care in their next bill.  Meanwhile, salvation remains one bill away, and the people who in Lincoln’s words gave “the last full measure” to protect us, are dying or losing their jobs.  Awareness needs to be raised about the issue to instigate real political action.  Kelly Kennedy, a reporter and journalist for the Army Times says: “As a country, we need to pay attention to what war looks like.  If we don’t, we don’t understand what the veterans have been through, and then we won’t understand why we need to take care of them.” The military’s culture of self sacrifice teaches veterans not to voice their own grievances.  We need to take care of veterans so that they may learn to take care of themselves (Sederer).

True, veterans need a government that does its part to ensure both funding and supervision takes place.  They need a Veterans Administration that tells the truth and does its best to provide extensive aid instead of hiding behind fudged figures.  But even this is secondary.  More than anything, veterans need a responsive and aware community that encourages them to seek aid.  Veterans need to know that help exists, and that America will not turn away when they ask for help.





Works Cited:

Leopold, Jason.  “VA Confirms 18 Vets Commit Suicide Every DayOnline Journal. 21 April.  2010.

Bryant, Jordan.  “VA Eyes $125B Budget for 2011Military.com. 28 April.  2010.

Sederer, Lloyd I.  “War Veterans, PTSD And The MediaThe Huffington Post. 18 April.  2010.

Background & StatisticsNational Coalition for Homeless Veterans. 16 April.  2010.

VA Accused of Covering up Suicide RatesMSNBC.  16 April.  2010.

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