On Nov. 3, the New York Times published a front-page photograph of soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division returning to Fort Drum, N.Y., after a 15-month tour in Iraq. Several soldiers, glad to be back on U.S. soil, were shown kissing the ground.
For some of these soldiers, their return to the United States and their family reunions were bittersweet, and Sunday’s Veterans Day celebration was virtually meaningless.
Remember, Veterans Day, as President Dwight Eisenhower envisioned it when he signed his 1954 proclamation, would honor our veterans for their patriotism, their love of the nation and their willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.
Well, the nation, especially the Veterans Affairs Department, has defaulted on its debt to our veterans.
If trends hold, a high percentage of the soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division will be forced into the ranks of thousands of others having a hard time getting the benefits they earned and deserve. Others will join those who wind up homeless as a direct result of their combat experiences.
Needless to say, some already are seeing their marriages and romantic relationships fall apart as a result of their long and repeated deployments to Iraq.
Earlier this year, The Washington Post chronicled serious problems in the long-term care of wounded veterans at Walter Reed National Army Medical Center in Washington. It highlighted substandard living conditions and excessive red tape that initiated congressional hearings and a shake-up of top brass.
How can we permit such shabby treatment of our service personnel?
A recent VA study indicates that veterans account for one in four homeless people in the nation although they are a mere 11 percent of the general population. Census Bureau data show that in 2005 about 195,000 homeless people out of 744,313 who regularly sought shelter each night were veterans.
According to the Associated Press, 45 percent of participants in the VA’s homeless program suffer from a diagnosable mental illness, many have drug problems, and 35 percent show signs of both. The overwhelming majority of these problems and illnesses are related to posttraumatic stress.
Veterans’ advocates and mental health officials are worried because so many veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are showing up so soon. Vietnam veterans with the same ailments and problems did not start showing up until nearly 10 years after they were discharged.
About the current war’s homeless veterans, Daniel Tooth, a VA official in Pennsylvania, told the AP: “We’re going to be having a tsunami of them eventually because the mental health toll from this war is enormous.”
Just days ago, the Harvard Medical School released a study showing that millions of veterans and their dependents lack access to VA hospitals and clinics and do not have health insurance to pay for care in other facilities.
These veterans are in a Catch-22: They are working-class folks who cannot afford private insurance but who earn too much to qualify for VA benefits. Because of this predicament, the majority of these veterans and their dependents go without seeing a doctor for more than a year at a time.
The majority of U.S. lawmakers, especially Republicans who count on the veterans vote, annually drag their feet on adequately funding veterans programs and on easing the red tape that makes eligibility for benefits arduous or next to impossible.
And so here we have celebrated another Veterans Day holiday. Exactly what did we celebrate — our veterans’ patriotism, their love of the nation, their willingness to serve and sacrifice and risk death for the common good?
If we want to honor our veterans properly, each of us should demand – by way of letters, e-mail messages and telephone calls – that our lawmakers do the right thing. Out of simple decency as a people who depend on the military to protect us from foreign enemies, we should make all veterans eligible for care.
Until we do, Veterans Day will remain an empty gesture that defaults on what we owe our fighting women and men.