America has been waging armed conflict for so long that the phrase “perpetual war” has begun to creep into our collective lexicon. The worst part of this is that the American public seems only too willing to forget about the mounting number of casualties—including those happening back on American soil.
What I’m talking about is the US government’s apparent war on soldiers returning from combat zones—a war at least as protracted as our efforts in either Afghanistan or Iraq.
According to a Veterans Affairs report released back in 2012, twenty-two American veterans commit suicide every single day. Tragically, this figure went largely unacknowledged—that is, until a single soldier’s suicide note went (in the parlance of our times) “viral” and shocked the nation out of its comfortable reverie. At least, for a little while.
Unfortunately, our state and federal governments appear too busy crushing unions, enshrining religious intolerance in law, and selling off our public lands for corporate profit. You know—the important stuff.
To his credit, President Obama has kept most of his promises when it comes to improving the lives of our veterans. PolitiFact has an exhaustive list of his efforts, and finds that he has made progress almost across the board. He succeeded in his efforts to fully fund the veterans administration, for example, and also managed to expand veterans centers in rural areas.
Unfortunately, these efforts do not represent a political consensus, nor a consolidated effort on behalf of our veterans, at the federal level. As recently as September of last year, Defense Secretary Bob Work indicated that the Pentagon would be carrying out further cuts in veterans care in the near future.
And while current and future funding cuts for pay, benefits, and housing allowances are bad enough, the VA’s lack of funding has also produced a huge backlog of disability claims; the so-called “tipping point” was reached way back in March 2013 when the number of cases exceeded 611,000.
Remember that “viral” suicide note I mentioned above? It wasn’t the only horror story that helped move the plight of the American soldier into the national spotlight. Shulman Rogers also reported on a $900,000 wrongful death settlement made by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
The payment was made after the Department failed to provide timely medical treatment to a Vietnam veteran in Puget Sound, Washington. This is reportedly the largest wrongful death settlement from that area since 2001.
This is saddening for two reasons: 1) However “generous” that figure may be, it’s a poor way to apologize for neglecting the health of a man who served his country with honor. 2) The fact that the veteran’s family had to literally sue a government agency to get their attention should be a source of national shame.
It’s tragic that it takes stories like this to get the country talking about our treatment of returning veterans: treatment that borders on contempt and which, if the lawsuit above is any indication, literally qualifies as criminal negligence.
We all talk big about taking our veterans’ well-being seriously. We pin American flags to our lapels and adorn our automobiles with made-in-China God Bless the Troops stickers. Too often, we confuse empty platitudes with real-world solutions and demonstrable, real-world expressions of empathy.
Then again, our government also has yet to join the rest of the developed world in mandating living wages, maternity and sick leave, and countless other basic human dignities even to “ordinary” Americans. Should we really be surprised that we adopt an out of sight, out of mind approach to our soldiers, as well?
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